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Forming Friendships with Other Disabled People: Why My Friends are Vital to My Well-Being

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Image background is black with white and purple cursive-style lettering with a quote from Maya Angelou:  "No one can take the place of a friend, no one."

“No one can take the place of a friend, no one.” – Maya Angelou

In establishing Ramp Your Voice!, an imperative aspect I have enjoyed most is connecting and befriending other disabled people, especially those online.  My interactions grew from creating the RYV! Tumblr and Facebook pages, where I was able to follow other disabled bloggers and disability-focused organizations.  I never expected these online links to yield anything more than possible networking opportunities – I was not prepared for how they would change my life and perspective about the diverse disabled experience.

How the Segregation of Disabled Students Affected My Childhood:  

Growing up, I was not around a great number of disabled children.  It was not like they did existed; we lived in different worlds.  My world consisted of interacting with the able-bodied students in my mainstream, or “regular,” classes, where I was typically the only physically disabled pupil.  The rest of the disabled children in my schools were in the special education classes; our worlds did not intersect unless we were on the school bus, cafeteria, or playground, and even then, our interactions were minimum and controlled.

This kind of segregation did not make sense to me at the time, but I now understand that segregating disabled children, as well as able-bodied children, from each other is quite harmful for all parties.  If I had been allowed to interact more with those who were “like” me that attended my schools, my sense of pride about my disability status may have flourished when I was younger.  I was never self-conscious about being disabled, but I did not allow myself to focus on it either, unless it came up in conversations about my health or abilities.  In a way, I feel like I missed out on such friendships growing up, especially when I hear the stories of other disabled people who had very strong connections with their disabled peers.

The desegregation of disabled students, no matter what classes they are in, has to take place.  Having that kind of peer support is crucial to a young person’s emotional and mental well-being.  I will forever wonder what kind of impact that level of peer support could have had on my self-esteem as a young girl, and those that I would have befriended.  Until I started connecting to other disabled Millennials, and those older, online, I never thought about how not having such deep connections growing up were negative.

Why Having Disabled Friends Validates My Disability Experience:  

The development of RYV! has fueled my desire to “right” the segregation “wrongs” of my childhood, and seek out the friendships of other disabled people.  The best online hub for that has been Tumblr.  I follow over 100+ blogs, and I have 3,826 followers and counting.  Every morning, I scroll through my Tumblr dashboard to read the empowering, heartbreaking, and victorious postings and articles shared.  There are several followers that I have reached out to, whom I have dubbed my “Tumblr friends.”  Though I have never met them or heard their voices, I feel close to them in the same manner I do my friends in my “real” life.  Reading their stories and realizing that we all share similar triumphs and frustrations while being disabled validates my experience.  I know that what I have endured, from feeling excluded or being angry because my body does not “work” like I want it to, is not weird or strange – it is my “normal.”

Blogging has unbelievably created this supportive sense of community for me.  Every story I read affects me deeply; when my friends experience pain, I feel it, when they are happy, I smile and cheer them on.  To express such strong emotions from reading their stories is powerful for me, not just within this work, but also to my well-being.  When I am going through a rough emotional patch, I know that I can reach out to my online disabled friends, and at least one person will understand my plight.  Being online shows me that I am not alone, and that I matter as a disabled person.  Holding firmly onto that truth is poignant in ways that words will never accurately express.

My Hopes for My Disabled Friendships:

I pray that this work continues to connect me with fellow disabled persons and advocates.  Any time I make a new online friend, I become so giddy.  I experience such happiness because I know that we share a bond that is remarkable.  When someone shares their tale with me, a certain level of trust, respect, and intimacy develops between us.  Opening up about one’s disability status can be both frightening and rewarding.  You are frighten because there may be stories or feelings you divulge that never escaped your thoughts before.  The reward for such candidness is knowing that you can be “emotionally naked,” as I call it, with someone who values you and sees the whole you that goes beyond your disability.  With my online disabled friends, I never have to worry about my status because it is never an issue; I do not have to constantly “explain” myself – they “get” me.  That level of mutual understanding is something I never fully had before, and I treasure it dearly with these friends.

Building a Supportive Disabled Community:

Tumblr is not the social media platform where such friendships can develop – I have gotten to know many disabled advocates I now call friends on Facebook and other websites.  I know that I am not the disabled blogger/social media fanatic who have enjoyed such connections.

If you are a disabled person who have had similar online friendship experiences, do share with me what these friendships mean to you.  How have these friendships affected the way you view yourself as a disabled person?  How do you think your presence has affected those you befriended?  Did you develop your disabled friendships in childhood or adulthood, and what are the differences between the two if you have done both?  Do you believe that it is important to a disabled person’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth to have friends who are also disabled, why or why not?

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The image quote by Maya Angelou states, “no one can take the place of a friend, no one.”  Nothing could replace the amazing friends I have amassed within the past year; it is not about the amount of time you have known someone – it is about the way they make you feel inside, and the value they bring to your life, and vice versa.  These friendships are invaluable to me, and I hope that they feel the same about me being in their lives.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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