Friendship is more than being around people, it’s about connecting with others. How does disability impact on making new friends?
‘Friendship is really important to me because you can have a good time and a laugh together, and you’re there for each other when you need to be.’ So says Claire, who lives at Livability’s Ashley Place residential home, her base for a busy social life.
Watch our film about Claire and her community in Bognor Regis
Friendship offers much more than the obvious pleasures of enjoying company and shared experience; it also has a dramatic effect on health and wellbeing. Research has found that the effect of social ties on lifespan is equivalent to giving up smoking, and is twice as beneficial as exercising.1
But finding and making real friends can present extra challenges to disabled people. As well as overcoming routine difficulties to get to a social event or place, such as transport and wheelchair access, disabled people say they experience awkwardness from others – and often rejection – in social situations.
Most of the British public – 67% – admit they feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person.2
Livability service users experience this in everyday life.At a recent workshop at Nash College, Livability’s further education centre for disabled young adults, many expressed a sense that people beyond college didn’t want to be with them and spend time with them. Student governor Poppy Goodchild speaks of society choosing to reject disabled young people because of their difference, rather than celebrate who they are. Cris Gangemi, Livability’s Community Network Coordinator, finds disabled people often talk about going out and ‘seeing people, rather than meeting people, because experience has taught them that often people don’t want to engage with them.’
For Livability, supporting service users to connect to others is a key component to person-centred care. ‘Connections in the community are really important for the residents,’ says Carole Brian, senior support worker at Ashley Place. ‘When they’ve got interests outside the house, they know there’s more to life than Ashley Place, there’s a whole world out there and they’re part of it. It’s important for us as staff because we see how they are after interacting with people – we see a positive difference in them.’
Carole, who has worked with disabled people for 17 years, feels there is widespread misunderstanding about their needs: ‘The people we support deal with have mainly physical disabilities – but the emotions are still there, the person is still there. They need, just as anyone else needs, emotional support, company, laughter, enjoyment, to see different people and to be able to share and get involved in different things.’
How does Livability support their service users to overcome such barriers to friendship?
Staff start with where the person is at, says Trudy Lockyer, Ashley Place’s manager. ‘We work with each individual, we meet with them, we talk to them about their interests and see if we can find a way in. It could be somewhere they’d like to go, whether it’s to see a film or join a club – anywhere where other people might be. Then from there we can help our residents to develop those relationships – as with any of us, they can sometimes turn into friendships.’
Whilst Livability staff are trained to keep appropriate boundaries with the people they serve, sometimes great friendships form outside the care setting. ‘We’ve got people who used to work at Ashley Place who are now friends of residents at Ashley Place, rather than workers,’ says Trudy. ‘Vincent became very good friends with his key worker John after he left the service. John knew that Vincent, who has speech and hearing difficulties, hasn’t got many close friends although he’s got hundreds of acquaintances. John’s been a very good friend to Vincent, for instance taking him to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. John and his wife are there for Vincent and Vincent knows them as friends.’
‘Looking outwards is an essential part of good social care’Trudy Lockyer
This is especially true when profound disability presents extra challenges to socialising: ‘We’re doing a lot of work to raise our visibility in the community.’
Real friendship means giving and receiving, as both Livability volunteers and service users find. Charlotte Overton-Hart, Livability’s Associate on Dementia, who has worked with people living with dementia in a variety of settings, says in her experience: ‘We all reap the benefits of investing quality time in one another. People are often surprised by that that because they go into it thinking “I am sacrificing my time to support this person” but they come away encouraged and heartened, having had a great time.’ Ashley resident Claire has the last word: ‘Livability just encourages me to be as independent as I can and get out and meet people. I’m there for my friends just as much as they’re there for me.’
1. ‘Social relationships and health’, House J.S., Landis K.R., Umberson D. (1988). Science 241: 540–545. (see Science report)
2. ‘Current attitudes towards disabled people’ Hardeep Aiden and Andrea McCarthy (2014) Scope (see Scope report)