Solace in Solidarity: Disability Friendship Networks Buffer Well-Being

Friendships enrich our lives. Friends laugh with us, cry with us, give us information and advice, and remind us that we belong. But beyond these benefits of friendship, for those of us with disabilities, there can be something special about having friends with similar disabilities. In this blog post, I want to describe my newly published research paper
about the benefits of disability friendship.

Many of the challenges we experience as disabled people, ultimately, stem from our minority status. Unlike some other minorities, though, we are often separated from others who are like us. Disability is often a horizontal identity that we don’t share with parents, and many times, one may be the only person with a particular disability in one’s school, workplace, or town. With this isolation, we might find ourselves taking instances of discrimination personally, or buying in to misconceptions about our own abilities. Although there are obvious advantages of being included in the nondisabled mainstream, we sometimes seek out friends who share our disability experience. In this research, my colleagues and I looked at the connections between having friends with disabilities and overall happiness.

Like many good research projects, this one came about by accident. When I was in grad school, I conducted an exploratory study with about 500 blind adults to find out what factors were associated with higher well-being. One question on the survey, that we tossed in right at the end, asked “about how many of your close friends are blind?” We found that on almost every measure of well-being, the respondents who said that some or many of their friends were also blind scored higher than those who said they had no, or only a few, blind friends. This was interesting, but we wanted to rule out the possibility that those respondents with more blind friends just had more friends in general. So we followed up with 71 of our respondents and asked them to count up how many blind and sighted close friends they had. They then filled out the Satisfaction with Life Scale,
a well-validated short measure of how satisfied they were with their lives overall. We found that regardless of how many sighted friends the respondents had, those with more blind friends had higher satisfaction with life.

When I started my postdoc at the University of Washington, I continued this research by asking people with various physical disabilities how many friends with disabilities they had, and giving them a similar measure of their overall quality of life. We had about 1,500 adults with various physical disabilities complete the survey. This sample was more diverse than the blind sample. We found that more than half of the respondents said they didn’t have any close friends with their particular disability condition, and almost half had no close friends with any physical disability. As in the first study, we found a link between friendships and quality of life, with respondents who had friends with disabilities reporting higher quality of life than respondents with no disabled friends. We also found that among the respondents with no disabled friends, there was a strong link between having more severe physical disability and lower quality of life, but for respondents with disabled friends, that link was weaker.

It’s clear that having disabled friends to validate one’s experiences, taking “solace in solidarity”, can be a powerful emotional buffer against the daily microaggressions and more blatant discrimination we encounter in the world. There are also tremendous practical benefits in terms of exchanging information. I regularly trade info with my blind friends about everything from finding accessible computer software, to nonvisual cooking techniques, to learning the DC subway system. In groups run by disabled people, one will likely encounter less accessibility barriers than in the same type of group without disabled leadership. For those of us with new disabilities, friends living with the same disability can provide hope, act as role models, and help ward off self-pity. It is through a combination of inclusion in the nondisabled world, and connection with disabled friends, that one can find a strong social balance.

Do you, or someone you know, want to meet people with a particular disability?
Check out this list of national disability organizations
to see if there is a local group in your area, or an online discussion group. As part of Disability Wisdom’s work, I also host a cross-disability Facebook group
where we discuss shared disability experiences. Stop on by!

**Email meif you want to learn more about the research, or for a full copy of the article.