Friendship Beyond the Time of COVID-19: Sharing Stories of Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities - Samuel Centre For Social Connectedness — Samuel Centre For Social Connectedness
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Friendship Beyond the Time of COVID-19: Sharing Stories of Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

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Articles
September 15, 2021

Adrianna Vanos (she/her) is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with Special Olympics International. She grew up in Guelph, Ontario before moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia to attend the University of King’s College and Dalhousie as an undergraduate student. As a Loran Scholar and combined honours student, she studied social anthropology and contemporary studies. She loves to learn and is passionate about accessible education, writing, and youth theatre. Adrianna has a goal to attend a Master of Human Rights program and apply her education to the NGO sector. Moreover, one day she hopes to start a not-for-profit youth-based theatre company to promote financial accessibility in the arts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have felt the weight of collective loneliness caused by social isolation from our friends and family. And while we have found remote ways to connect, we have come to understand the exhaustion of needing to overcome barriers to access friendship. 

Yet, this experience has only given us a glimpse into what individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) encounter everyday. In one study, published by the journal Autism: The international journal of research and practice, it was noted that for many individuals living with ID, there is a prevalent stigma around friendships, particularly in the mistaken belief that friendships with people living with ID are inherently less meaningful. [1] These stigmas then manifest into social avoidance, stereotyping, and bullying [2] to create a world where social connectedness is compromised by internalized bias. 

While social distancing is a temporary precaution, the stigmas that individuals with ID face are life-long. Keeping in mind the exhaustion and loneliness we have endured over the last two years, it is not difficult to understand what a troubling reality this is. 

However, our current experiences offer a valuable opportunity to not only consider and empathize with the reality that individuals with ID face every day, but to work together to create a world where nobody faces barriers to friendships; a world where we all champion social connectedness. 

To understand how we can achieve this goal, I spoke with Best Buddies Canada (Best Buddies), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works in schools to foster one-to-one friendships between individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities and neurotypical students. 

When asked how we can conquer these stigmas, Executive Director Vicki MacCrimmon explained that “feelings of loneliness and isolation are hitting us all… it is a good opportunity where we can tell our story… our buddies go through this isolation every day.”[3] MacCrimmon continued to explain that this story should be told by individuals with ID. This statement was further echoed by Friends, Life, Community (FLC)[4], an NGO providing programming for individuals with ID to build friendships, and become self-advocates. FLC’s director of philanthropy, Lauren Zook, explained that the value of FLC’s work lies beyond programming and is seen as a platform for individuals with ID to conquer social stigma, express their voice, and be accepted within the community.[5] 

These organizations make a valuable insight that to overcome social stigma, we must listen to the individuals who are affected. To bring this insight to fruition, I also spoke with three unique Best Buddies pairs. Throughout my interviews with both NGOs working in the realm of providing supports to individuals with ID, and in my interviews with the Best Buddies pairs, it was striking that for many living with ID, a sense of isolation, similar to that newly experienced by many amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, has persisted due to stigmas around intellectual disabilities. This stigma can be countered, however, and isolation lessened, by conscious efforts to reach out to, engage with, and above all, listen to, people living with ID. My interviews showcased the value of social connectedness, and the inherent worth of forming connections with individuals who may be different from ourselves, as highlighted by the friendships formed through organizations like Best Buddies. When we seek out genuine friendship and human connection with others, including those living with ID, incredible things happen, as the three Best Buddies pairs highlighted. These are their stories: 

Best Buddies Lauren & Jessica | Photo courtesy of Lauren 

Meet Lauren and Jessica, a Best Buddies pair who have been friends for two years after co-founding their college’s first Best Buddies chapter. The pair became quick friends after discovering a common love of movies, crafts, and the beach. 

Finding friendship hasn’t always been easy for Jessica, who has faced social stigmas about her disability. She explained: “For people like me who have disabilities, we don’t have permission to have friends like what I have now with Lauren.”

However, Lauren and Jessica’s friendship proves that love and social connectedness can flourish when we overcome social stigma and form authentic connections. Lauren expressed: “[Jessica] is one of my best friends … we connect so well….it doesn’t matter your abilities to have a friend. It just matters how you’re able to love one another. A friendship is a love story.”

The pair explained that their friendship goes beyond Best Buddies programming, because their connection is lifelong. They advised that everyone should be “open minded to try to make new friends” and to “go out and seek to learn.”[6]

Best Buddies Andrew & Yousef | ​​Photo courtesy of Yousef 

This sentiment was echoed by Yousef and Andrew, a Best Buddies pair whose three-year-long friendship has fostered growth, support, and care. Their mutual passion for sports means they love to watch games together and participate in friendly competitions. 

Recently, Andrew has encountered students who think that friendships with individuals with ID are resume-builders that can be pushed aside. He explained that this is harmful because “you’re not signing up for your resume, but to be a life-long friend.”

Yousef elaborated on this point to emphasize that “the nature of a friendship evolves with environments” but so long as we communicate and invest into our relationships, we can foster genuine connections. [7] 

Best Buddies Michelle & Leo | Photo courtesy of Michelle

These thoughts were shared by Michelle, who has been friends with her buddy, Leo, for four years. Michelle explained that people are apprehensive about friendships with individuals with ID because they are misinformed. She continued, “this is keeping people from a world of possibility and meaningful experiences”.[8] She couldn’t be more right. 

As we reflect upon the importance of social connectedness, I urge you to foster connections that break from social stigma, open your mind for new friendships, gain perspective, and listen to individuals with ID.

Citations: 

[1] DaWalt, L. S., Usher, L. V., Greenberg, J. S., & Mailick, M. R. Friendships and social participation as markers of quality of life of adolescents and adults with fragile X syndrome and autism. Autism: the international journal of research and practice, 23(2), 383–393. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317709202,

[2] Friends: Connecting with People with ID and the Community”, University of Minnesota. htps://rtc.umn.edu/docs/Friends_Connecting_people_with_disabilities_and_community_members.pdf

[3] Phone conversation with Vicki MacCrimmon, July 27th, 2021

[4]  https://friendslife.org

[5] Phone conversation with Lauren Zook, July 28th, 2021

[6] Phone conversation with Lauren & Jessica, August 1st, 2021

[7] Phone conversation with Yousef & Andrew, July 29th, 2021

[8] Phone conversation with Michelle, August 3rd, 2021