Friendships are some of the most important relationships we have in life. They add a richness and warmness to our existence. They provide comfort and make us feel connected. They allow us to be understood and accepted for who we are. They provide us with people we can count on during difficult times. And, just as importantly, friendship gives us someone to share our happiest moments with.
People with intellectual challenges deserve to have those same meaningful relationships.
But, unfortunately, many people believe you can’t be friends with a person if they have a developmental disability.
Any two human beings on earth can be friends. It is only our bias and narrowmindedness that prevents it.
Typically, a person with an intellectual challenge is ready and willing to accept you as a friend. Often they have endured negative experiences that have left them feeling lonely. They have sometimes been ignored and forgotten. In some cases, they have been marginalized in society. That has created a real need to interact with someone they can trust and who will respect them.
The question is: what characteristics do you look for in a friend?
Do you want someone who is honest and trustworthy? A person who has a sense of humor and loves to laugh? An individual who is compassionate and cares about others? Someone who will value your friendship and won’t take it for granted?
Would you like to meet a person who does not judge you but rather accepts you? Someone who is loyal through good times and bad? An individual who forgives you when you are inconsiderate or unkind? A person who wants nothing more than to be your friend?
A person with a developmental disability can have each of those qualities and more.
If you will open your heart and your mind, you’ll find that there is no reason an individual with an intellectual challenge cannot be your friend.
All they require is that you treat them the way they treat you.
Here’s an example. When I was growing up, there was a boy that lived on my street who had a developmental disability. He was happy, easy-going, and always glad to see me. And although he was nonverbal, we quickly learned to communicate in our own way. It did not take long for us to become good friends.
We spent several years together until one afternoon I came home from school and my mother told me my friend had unexpectedly died the night before. It was a shocking moment that stands out in my childhood. The sadness and sense of loss were in no way diminished because he had a disability. It hurt just as much to think I would never see him again as it would losing any other person. He was my friend, and now he was gone. That was more than fifty years ago, but I can still remember the sound of his laughter.
That is the power of friendship. It makes us care about others in a way that impacts our lives.
Currently, I work with forty-seven men and women with some form of intellectual challenge. But the fact that they each have a disability does not alter their ability to be a friend.
I have been fortunate to work with them for seventeen years. During that time, we have celebrated joyous moments together, as well as troubling days that tested us. But through it all, our appreciation for each other has never wavered.
These remarkable individuals have had such a positive effect on me that it is difficult to imagine what my life would be like if we’d never met.
I am a better person for knowing them.
They are my friends.