(This post is Part 2. Read Part 1: Can Kids with Disabilities HAVE friends?)
Many academic journals and therapists suggest that since poor social functioning is the primary impediment to social connections for youth with developmental disabilities, then the youth with developmental disabilities should be trained in skills that will increase the possibility of social integration and mitigate potential rejection by peers. This is the wrong place to start. Matt has enough to deal with.
Others suggest “best practices” for getting kids with special needs involved in a larger social world. Unfortunately, these practices or methods are disconnected from a more comprehensive vision of friendship or hospitality. Adolescents don’t need technical methods for achieving a goal of inclusion as much as they need motivation and a fresh vision of reality that is not threatened by difference. Adolescents can be mentored into choosing kids with disabilities to be friends, and in the process, they will discover the treasure that comes only through encountering another’s self-revelation. Being elected as a friend is a legitimate first step in establishing a mutual and reciprocal friendship—and the adolescents who make up our youth groups are strategically placed to make that overture. I have witnessed in Matt, and in countless others, that when a kid with a disability is elected as a friend, that very choice creates a safe environment in which relationships can be explored. How hopeful it is for Matt to hear, “You can’t mess up and lose me because we are friends.”
Mutuality is expressed in the voluntary nature of friendship. Disabilities studies specialist Zana Lutfiyya explains, “The knowledge that another person wants to be with one, spend time and do things together out of affection or by choice is a powerful affirmation of one’s worth and value” (Zana Marie Lutfiyya, “‘A Feeling of Being Connected’: Friendships between People with and without Learning Difficulties,” Disability, Handicap and Society 6, no. 3 (1991): 240.) Whereas family connections are of natural necessity or obligation, and service-client relationships are based on a contract, being chosen as a friend engenders a sense of belonging, a sense of connectedness.
Matt still has trouble making friends at school, but he is surrounded by peers who care about him at youth group. Additionally, he has gained the confidence to reach out. In conclusion, I will let this letter that I just received from the mother of another of our kids tell the rest of the story. The names have been changed, but Matt is still Matt.
About six months ago, I was invited to bring my son Sam to a youth group cookout just to see what it was like. Sam is an extremely anxious sixth grader; new experiences have always been very difficult, so much so that our first exposure to anything new is usually fraught with so much anxiety he can’t enjoy himself. From the moment we arrived, Sam felt so comfortable that he joined right in! Not only did he participate in the sack race– he was first in line! (He had never done a sack race before). Not only did he get on the boat for a short cruise on the river, he did not want me to come saying, “Go mom, this is my thing” – he even drove the boat when given the opportunity! I had never seen Sam like that: calm, comfortable, being a little independent. For the first time in many years, I was able to sit and talk with other parents! (So it’s changed my life as well). It makes the world of difference to know that there are other parents I can talk to and rely on for support and understanding, whom if I am not there can step in and help my son. Being able to drop Sam off at an event and know that he is safe; that I don’t have to be standing in the wings to jump in and assist him is such a wonderful feeling.
Not only has the youth group given Sam the opportunity to feel safe, be himself and just have fun without overwhelming anxiety, it has changed his life in an even more meaningful and profound way.
Sam had connected to one kid in particular so they got together outside of youth group. They did normal kid things, they ran around outside, played video games, and maybe watched a movie, on the surface nothing particularly special. That evening when Sam went to bed, he had the biggest grin I had ever seen, and told me that it had been the best day EVER! I told him I was so glad that he had fun with his friend Matt. That was when Sam’s eyes light up even more and he said, “Wow, so this is what it feels like to have a friend!” I will never forget the look on his face; it was pure joy. You see Sam had never had a friend before; something the rest of us probably took for granted as a part of childhood (hanging out with your friends). Having that feeling for the first time has changed Sam’s life forever! There is tremendous sadness in seeing your child passed over, never invited to join in the fun just because he has a disability, but the joy in knowing that he has even one real friend takes away all that pain.
Ben Conner runs a ministry to adolescents with developmental disabilities in Williamsburg, Virginia, and has taught in the field of Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary and in the fields of Mission and Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary through the Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT).
His book, Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilitieswill be published by Eerdmans in June.