By Maggie Pascucci, LMSW
The benefits of having social connections is well documented and it is clear that they lead to a greater sense of well-being and improved physical health. Unfortunately, it is all too common that adults with disabilities have fewer social networks and friendships than people living without a disability. It is not atypical for an individual’s staff or family members to fill the role of “friend”, rather than peers or community members. Barriers to developing social connections may be varied, such as communication challenges, accessibility to transportation and limited exposure to social opportunities. However, supporting people to develop and maintain connections should be at the forefront of our minds, given the positive impact such relationships have on one’s life.
Social connections can be developed by increasing membership in the community. What associations or clubs might fit someone’s talents or interests? Do community centers or library groups offer places to engage with others? Is there a social ministry group someone might explore through their faith practice? Formal programs, such as Best Buddies, can offer opportunities for 1:1 friendships and group activities. Recreation programs offered by service providers offer opportunities to meet up with peers while engaging in a fun activity. Signing up for a class through an adult education program brings people together who have a shared interest. Increasing a person’s exposure to diverse opportunities is a good first step in meeting people and developing friendships.
It is important to remember that the desire to connect to another person on some level is universal, but what it means to connect and how people want to connect is very personal. For example, for someone with autism maintaining eye contact may be difficult, and communication through technology, such as texting or via Facebook, may provide a more comfortable outlet. Video-chat apps (facetime, Skype, etc.) can enhance communication with family and friends, especially when distance prevents meeting in person. The use of technology can support and empower people to connect with others in what has become a standard practice for many of us.
No matter how it’s done, supporting people to develop lasting relationships is integral to reducing isolation and improving one’s quality of life.