Article

Frontline Initiative: Supporting Healthy Relationships

You've got a friend?

Author(s)

Angela Novak Amado, Ph.D., worked at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, for more than 30 years before her retirement, and has done training about relationships between people with and without disabilities throughout the U.S., Europe, and Australia. She may be reached at amado003@umn.edu

African American woman in blue shirt hugging older white woman with floral shirt.

“Life is nothing without friendship.”

This statement is thousands of years old. It is from a Roman philosopher named Cicero. While that statement is true for all of us, many people who receive services only have friends that are other people with disabilities and sometimes staff. Many people who receive services go out to the community and have community activities. They go to restaurants, movies, and shopping. Perhaps there are community members who welcome them and say “Hi.” But, more meaningful relationships are also possible. Are you interested in helping people you support to have a broader range of friends? Are you interested in connecting them with people from the larger community?

“I love the person. I came to see that my job was to see how many more people I could bring into their life to love them.”

~ DSP

Many people with a disability express a strong desire to have friends who do not have a disability. Many community members have expressed great benefit from getting to know, befriend, and love those who do have a disability. People in a staff role, like you, can make a great difference in bringing people together. You can help strengthen our communities by bringing people together in real relationships and friendships. One Direct Support Professional (DSP) expressed it this way: “I love the person. I came to see that my job was to see how many more people I could bring into their life to love them.”

cover of friends manual. it shows many different people connected together by a dotted line.

When people who receive services have friends from the larger community, they are often happier. They often have fewer behavior issues, and they know they are valued for who they are. There is a free curriculum called, Friends: Connecting people with disabilities and community members that is intended to help you help the people you support to develop friendships. In addition to the manual, you can also download the Activity Sheets. The manual can help you get ideas of how to connect people, what actions to take, and how to invite community members to get to know someone. The manual was compiled from over 25 years of projects, learning from people just like you who were trying out different ideas.

Some of the skills you can learn include —

  • How to see the gifts someone has to offer others.
  • Where to find people who share the person’s interests.
  • How to invite community members to get to know someone.
  • How to identify what types of support you want from your managers.

DSPs like you have used these ideas and this curriculum to help people have community members as friends. There are many examples and stories in the manual about people with diverse abilities, including people who have a mild or a severe level of disability, people who don’t use words to communicate, and people who have challenging behavior.

You can also use these ideas and examples to help people have a greater sense of “belonging.” People can join community groups, such as cribbage groups, quilting groups, sports fan clubs, coloring book clubs, fishing groups, and many others. Other strategies and stories include ideas for helping people have a valued role, such as a church greeter, fan club member, etc.

You can use the individual Activity Sheets to help a person who receives services to identify their own ideas. You can help them determine how they want to find friends. You can help them identify how they want to introduce themselves to others. The manual can help you work through steps to identify a person’s gifts and interests. Then you can brainstorm ideas through seven different strategies, and identify actions to take. There is also guidance for what to do if you have been trying some ideas and have not yet been successful. Another section includes information for how your agency can and will need to support you. They will need to assist you in supporting these types of connections.

A new version of the manual was recently developed for family members who have a young adult or adult child living with them that they want to support to have more friends. This manual would also be helpful if you support someone who lives with their family, or if you want to share the ideas with family members you know. The Friends Manual for Families is also free to download.

One DSP named Kathy worked in a group home and supported an older woman named Betty. Kathy knew that Betty was social, liked being with people, and would like more friends. Betty used few words to communicate. Kathy knew that she could support Betty in making more friends, and that there were community members who would benefit from spending time with Betty. Kathy used the Friends curriculum to get ideas about where to help Betty find a friend. Betty went to church services every week. Kathy thought that church would be a great place to develop a friendship. Kathy wanted to look for someone who would come to visit Betty and get to know her better, not just see her at services. Kathy said, “I was on a mission” that day that she took Betty to church to find such a person. Kathy spotted Carol, another older woman who always said hi to Betty. Kathy asked Carol if she would like to get to know Betty better. Carol said “Yes!” Carol first came over to share cake and coffee. Carol started coming over more frequently to Betty’s home to visit and play cards.

Good luck with your efforts. For many people, if they are going to have a wider social network, more sense of belonging, less loneliness, and have more friends, you will play an important role in supporting friendships. The Friends manuals are intended to help our community members have the chance to get to know someone better and value them.