I belong to several Facebook groups which support individuals with disabilities or their families. Recently, I have read a few posts that I can relate to. Many addressed the issue of teen and young adults with disabilities struggling to form and maintain friendships. I can relate to these struggles. However, there are many ways to overcome this obstacle.
When I graduated from high school, I found many of my friendships fading away. My high school buddies went on to college. Some went on to get married and start families. My path was a bit different. I stayed in town and for a few years went to school. I struggled to make any friends in this new environment. College life is not exactly wheelchair friendly. My friendships during this time were basically my caregivers. I have had many caregivers come and go. However, there are a few who I have continued a friendship with even after they no longer worked for me.
I think I am a really likable dude. I am friendly and have a great sense of humor. Overall, I am an easy-going low, maintenance kind of friend. So why the fading friendships? There are several challenges for teens and young adults with disabilities that others take for granted.
Accessibility is the greatest obstacle. Hanging out at someone’s house is not feasible in most cases. Not only does the entrance to the house need to be accessible, but in many cases the bathrooms do as well. Most activities in which teens and young adults participate in are not always accessible for wheelchair users.
Another major obstacle is transportation. I need a wheelchair accessible vehicle to get from place to place in most cases. Arranging transportation usually takes some planning, so the spontaneous hanging out is not always possible. Due to this, I am usually not invited to such outings. As time goes by, the invites dry up.
There are other obstacles. My need for a caregiver is a huge one. Hanging out with me may be desired. However, having my caregiver tag along may be a different story. I know when I was a teenager, my educational aides were all middle-aged women. That is a total friendship killer for a teenage boy. Most young adults with disabilities live with their parents/caregivers or in a residential facility. Both settings are not exactly friendship friendly, pun intended. Even though I am lucky enough to have my own place, I still struggled with friendships as I entered adulthood.
So we identified the problem, what is the solution? The most important tip for teens and young adults with disabilities is to not give up. If you don’t put yourself out there, the friendships won’t suddenly appear. Don’t focus on the friendships you used to have that faded away. Instead, focus on the friendships you can make today. The key word being YOU can make. Friends will not fall into your lap, you have to go out there and find them.
Living with a disability takes creativity and determination. We have to constantly find different ways to achieve even the most mundane everyday tasks. Friendship making is no different. Teens and young adults with disabilities have to make a plan and think of creative ways to meet new people. Then find consistent ways to maintain those friendships.
Here are a few tips for teens and young adults with disabilities to meet new people and developing friendships.
Social Media: I have developed great friendships through social media. Facebook and Instagram have opened doors for me not only as a blogger, but also allowed me to develop friendships. Outside of the ability to use a computer, accessibility is not an obstacle for developing friendships. On-line friendships may not be the same as real life friendships. However, it allows for spontaneous interactions and chats. Social media has helped me reconnect with old friends, as well as making new friends.
Video Chats: I have a friend from camp. In the past we only saw each other once a year at camp. Now as adults, video chat is one way we stay in touch. This is more personable than private messaging via Instagram or Facebook.
Facebook Groups and Other Forums: Over the last few years, I have joined several disability related Facebook groups and forums. This is another great way to form on-line friendships with other individuals facing the same challenges. It takes time to connect one-on-one with people. The key is to be consistent and active within the groups. I stay away from groups that are negative or drama filled. I have met some really cool people who inspire me and at times entertain me! These are also great resources for advise and support.
Meet-up groups: Meetup is a great place to find a group of individuals interested in the same things you are. These interests do not need to be disability related. You can also set up meeting places around accessibility. Meetups are planned ahead of time, which helps overcome the transportation obstacle.
When making friendships on-line, be sure to do so in a smart and safe manner. Of course, never give personal information until you know you can trust the other party. Also for meetup groups, make sure you are meeting in a well populated public place.
Don’t discount the value of on-line friendships. Many can become lifelong, valuable relationships. On-line friendships can provide support, companionship and conversations without the accessibility obstacles.
In the Community
Church or Spiritual Gatherings: Churches or other spiritual gatherings are a wonderful place to meet like minded people. Don’t just attend, get involved. Join a committee or volunteer. When I was a kid my parents would invite a family from church over after services for a meal. Over time, they made several friends and we always had a great time.
Be Regulars: Find a coffee shop, museum, park, pub or restaurant that you enjoy. Frequent this establishment as much as possible. Strike up conversations with those around you. Initially, it may be awkward. People may not be able to look past your disability at first. However, the more you patronize the establishment and the more you socialize, this may all fade. I have made friends in my community by doing this. I make a point to visit the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, a barrier-free museum, in Wausau. As a result, I have made friends and have had opportunities open up for me as a result. I also frequent Lumpy’s for Packer games. I love rolling in and hearing everyone say hi! Additionally, I am a regular at the Woodchucks games. As a result, the staff has gone above and beyond to assist in anyway they can when I have had accessibility issues.
Attend Community Events- I have a few events I make a point of attending in my community every year. As a result, I have met others who are “repeat attenders” Don’t be shy in asking for email addresses or phone numbers. My mom always tells me, “The worst thing that can happen is they say no” Is it fun to hear “No”? Of course not! However, you will never hear a “Yes” unless you ask!
Adaptive Sports- Look into adaptive sports teams in your community. Special Olympics or wheelchair basketball teams are just a few examples. If you are not able to participate in the sport, volunteer to manage or help in anyway possible. Most importantly, go to the games or events!! It is an excellent way to connect with others with disabilities and their families.
Audit College Courses- If you can not afford or do not have time for classwork, audit a college course. You can take courses of interest and meet other students with the same interest. This is a way to get out, learn new skills and meet others! A total win-win!
Take a Class- There are classes, free or low cost, offered through many different organizations. In my community, the library offers classes and events for adults. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Be creative. For example, I LOVE to watch cooking shows. My disability prevents me from cooking. However, if a cooking class of interest was offered, I would call to see if I could attend with my caregiver. The caregiver can be my hands. I can still benefit from the instruction and the socialization.
Start an Interest Group– If you can not find a group of interest or one that is accessible to you, start your own! These groups do not necessarily have to be disability related. I LOVE wrestling and host regular PPV wrestling events at my apartment. I look forward to these and so do my guests! These groups can be more formal like a book club. Or they can be less formal like video games on Wednesday nights.
Join Organizations- Passionate about politics, religion, art, community, etc? Join an organization! If the meeting places are not accessible, make accessible suggestions. Meeting people who have the same interests open doors to friendships.
These are just a few ideas. The most important thing is to GET OUT AND ABOUT! Don’t let a bad or unsuccessful experience discourage you. Recently, I had such an experience. However, I am determined to try again. Don’t set expectations and be consistent. Going out and taking chances will not guarantee instant friendships. However, it will definitely put the odds in your favor.
In the groups I belong to, many will state “My child does not have friends other than family”. My cousins are not just my family, they are my friends. We are a tight bunch and I know I can always depend on them. If friends can be like family, why can’t family qualify as friends? Hanging out with family can broaden your friendship circle naturally. Encourage family members to bring a friend when inviting them over.
One of the benefits of being an adult with a disability is that we never outgrow camp! Easter Seals in Wisconsin extends camp sessions to young adults and older. I took a break from camp shortly after I turned 18. However, I missed that week of being with others who had similar disabilities. I returned a few years ago. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new friends every year. Facebook and social media enables me to keep in contact throughout the year.
There is no doubt that forming and maintaining valuable friendships as a young adult with a disability is a challenge. Obstacles are a way of life for many living with disabilities. We have to decide which obstacles are worth overcoming. For me, friendships are just that important. In a perfect world, friendships would be barrier free. Unfortunately, for many they are not. We have to work ten times harder. I think in the end, you will find that even one friendship is worth the extra effort!
Until next time, Keep Rollin’ and Keep Smilin’
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