Connected in dictionary terms means united, joined and linked. Feeling connected, being connected and staying connected are ways we experience our association with others in terms of friendships. Whilst new friendships can flourish in unexpected places in everyday life, friendship groups typically form in communities of interest, informal associations and shared circumstance.
For people with learning disabilities friendships can be more an aspiration than a reality. Opportunities to connect may be restricted whilst membership of communities and associations can be limited. People with learning disabilities are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation where their social circle is limited. For many people with learning disabilities their friendship circle does not include anyone who is not paid to work with them.
Facilitating friendships and promoting social inclusion "requires more than just placing people in proximity to others. It is to do with engendering a sense of belonging... and being cared about rather than cared for" (Evans and Murcott, 1990;Gollay et al, 1978).
Friendships can be supported and facilitated by allies (for example professionals, families, volunteers and community members). Free online materials are readily available, for example:
Your Life Your Voice https://www.yourlifeyourvoice.org/JournalPages/Circles%20of%20Friendship.pdf
In order to stay connected with friends, some people with learning disabilities may need practical support. Think about all of the steps involved in planning a catch up with a friend or with a group of friends. Then imagine the barriers that are faced when people are not in full charge of their time, their budget or their decisions to go out because they live with a degree of care and support. Not being able to make last minute plans, not being allowed to stay out late and not being available because there aren't enough staff to facilitate... Some people with learning disabilities just need the paid professionals/others to manage these barriers so that they can get on with being with friends.
"policy‐makers and service providers need to be intentional about providing support for friendships" McVilly, K. R., Stancliffe, R. J., Parmenter, T. R., & Burton-Smith, R. M. (2006)
In order to stay connected people with learning disabilities also need the means and modes for communication. This includes access to digital technology and opportunities to develop digital literacy skills. During Covid-19 there are many examples of people with learning disabilities making full use of social media platforms and digital applications to stay in touch. Reach at Asist Self advocates have clear views on the importance of digital inclusion: https://youtu.be/Fg8TOPBRTxA
People with learning disabilities are using social media platforms to stay connected with us and with each other. Some people tell us they are missing their friends, others are enjoying the online friendship groups and increased contact this lockdown has encouraged.
People with learning disabilities are meeting others in self advocacy groups, taking part in zoom meetings and quizzes, staying connected with friends and forming new friendships.
For many people with learning disabilities digital poverty is a reality. Being able to seek help from a friend when in need or being able to check in with friends during lockdown is dependent on having a phone or device and having credit or wifi to connect.
Like many community organisations at this time Reach at Asist are working to stay connected with people with learning disabilities and to support friends to stay connected with each other through self advocacy. Thanks to Stoke-on-Trent City Council and The Community Foundation for Staffordshire who have provided funding, we can donate a small number of free phones with an amount of free credit to people with learning disabilities who do not have a phone.
After Covid-19 the online connections people are making will continue to thrive as the demand for digital inclusion grows louder. People with learning disabilities tell us they are looking forward to seeing their friends in person when it is safe to do so. Meeting friends in person will not be replaced by online connecting but for some people, being able to connect digitally is a new and exciting prospect.
We welcome you to stay connected with Reach at Asist and hope to see you soon.