five different hands, each holding a different-colored leaf

Many types of disabling conditions can make it difficult to make and keep friends!  Today, let’s talk about what we can do to increase our options in terms of making friends!  

Challenges to connecting with others when you have a visible disability

My symptoms are not generally visible, but I have noticed that I often get treated differently when my movements are severe and people see my disability first.  

I think in those moments I’m getting a glimpse into the world of people who have visible disabilities. That glimpse sometimes leaves me disappointed in humanity.

woman in wheelchair looking at field next to woman not in wheelchair

There’s a lot of judgment and bad assumptions made in those moments,  I am immediately identified as ‘other’  and ignorant actions are taken or judgments are made.   

In those moments, it is hard to picture building friendships with the people who are judging me.

The key here is that you don’t have to.

With a physical difference, people are going to notice, that is unavoidable – but you can get an idea about who you can connect with by correcting the assumptions and/or finding people who don’t make them in the first place!  

You also can focus on finding people who share other traits or interests with you, and building on those connections.

The other big challenge is accessibility – whatever your condition is, you may need physical accommodations made for you to take part in any activity. 

For example, if you use a wheelchair, things need to be wheelchair accessible, or if you are deaf, you need to be able to get the information you need visually – if you are blind, you need to get the information or connections without visual cues. 

There are often tools you can bring along to help the process, but in some ways, you need people who care enough about what you think and how you feel to respect the need for those accommodations. 

It’s possible that it won’t happen at first, but I believe in your ability to persevere(either with multiple groups of people or multiple visits) until they do!

Your need for accommodations may adjust what events you can attend or participate in and will push you towards certain types of opportunities, but there still are options out there!

Challenges with an invisible condition

When managing something that’s not obvious(like I am much of the time), people tend to assume you are able-bodied and initial contact is pretty easy to make, but that’s often followed by a sense of betrayal or othering when your condition becomes apparent.  The risk of rejection often comes a bit later than it does with a physically visible disability, but it’s definitely still there!

When your condition is invisible, people are less apt to understand why your behaviors don’t line up with their expectations. 

lemon slices, one of which has a pink interiorWith social anxiety or other mental health conditions, your comfort in interacting with others will be lower, and the first couple of times you participate in something, you are almost guaranteed to have some social discomfort of unease.  This can be frustrating, but it can be manageable!  

If you’re dealing with a more physical condition(like diabetes or Crohn’s disease) you probably need to be more thoughtful in certain choices(like a restrictive diet or certain physical limitations), but you can plan ahead for the more common possible situations to help make them less impactful on you or less noticeable to others!

Either way, the risk of rejection is a bit higher for those of us managing disabling conditions – and going out often requires more energy and planning than the average person as well!

Joining existing groups!

What I have found incredibly helpful has been joining longstanding social or support groups!  

I am an active participant in Birequest, and have been for close to 15 years.

As a bisexual person, this is a group that shares my identity, giving me an instant ‘in’, which helps reduce the ‘othering’ effect of my symptoms.  

There are always new members joining, so there are more potential friends at pretty much every meeting, and there is also a crowd of regulars who I can expect to see most times I show up!

As you participate, you start to become one of those regulars, and have a good chance of finding other regulars(and new folks) who you can connect with and grow a friendship.

But what kind of group should I join?

Think about things you enjoy, and search for groups focused on those subjects or identities!  

If you have an additional minority identity, there may be a support or discussion group around that topic – be creative!  Search sites like meetup.com or google for it and see if you can find anything that matches your interests, identity, or weaknesses.

three women on a railroad track, focusing their cameras on the camera taking the picture
Why not join a photography group?

There are a lot of LGBT groups out there, for example, if you don’t identify as straight.

There are a lot of groups built around solving common problems, like weight watchers, alcoholics anonymous, or discussion/support groups for people who under-earn.

If there’s a bad habit you want to break or an identity you are exploring(or proud of) – maybe there’s a group nearby(or at least worth the trip) that you could start participating in regularly!

if you enjoy writing, look for a writer’s group in your area.  

If you are a big fan of a particular artist or genre, see if there’s anything out there with that focus.  

Meetup has an amazing variety of groups, including adult coloring circles, meditation groups, and various networking activities – as well as hiking groups, foodie groups, and all kinds of other options!

If you happen to be a religious person who finds joy in your church, synagogue, mosque or coven, look there for more social opportunities.

Maybe there’s a book club or bible study or ritual planning group that you could participate in, taking a more active part in the organization!

Through this, you can share your religious celebrations with those who share your faith, making more friends and closer community ties.

Making sure you can attend

Once you find something that fits your identity or interests, look into it and make sure that you’ll physically be able to attend.

There is often a coordinator listed for many of these groups(or a listed contact person), so you can reach out to them to confirm that you can participate despite your particular symptoms or concerns.

Think about what you need, then contact the person and ask them. You may want to ask about physical accessibility, how big the group typically is(should you expect 5 people? 25? 50?), the age range of members(will I fit in? Does the group skew younger than me? older?), or what to expect at the event(are people in chairs? Are you going to do much running? If I run late is it still okay for me to come in?).

people gathered by a bonfire at sunset near the ocean
This looks like an awesome meeting place – as long as you can get to the fire!

Once you find something that meets your basic needs, attend the group a few times to see how it feels.  You often get the sense of a group’s culture at the first meeting, so the most important step is to show up there and see what it’s like.

If one event or group feels uncomfortable, try another one until you feel like you’ve found people you could develop friendships with(if at all possible, keep going to one thing until/unless you find something better).  Doing things this way will give you opportunities to become familiar to the group and meet a variety of people who share an interest or identity with you.

You are just about guaranteed to have a good time because you’re doing or discussing something you care about.

Advantages to a regular event

You always know when and where it’s happening, so you can plan for it. Once you figure out how to get there and back, you don’t need to figure it out again(unless you join a group that uses different venues every time, like a foodie group).

If you don’t make it to a meeting, you aren’t letting the group down or being a big disappointment – the event is still going to happen whether or not you are there!  I have found that really comforting as it removes a sense of responsibility for me, and keeps me from feeling guilty if I can’t make it(canceling on 1:1 plans means that the other person is disappointed).

women exercising with small weights
The better you know the routine, the easier it is to go through the steps!

If you go through a rough spell and can’t make it for a few days, weeks, or months, it’s something that you can look forward to returning to as soon as you are doing enough better.  

As I mentioned before, I’ve participated in Birequest for close to 15 years now. The meetings were twice a month, and I’d have the occasional bad day, week, or month where I’d miss.

The group was still there when I came back, and reintegrating was really easy since many of the regulars were still there. I actually had to stop going for several years at one point!

I had decided to attend grad school(which was actually located only a few blocks away from the LGBT Center where birequest was meeting), and after my first year, the timing just didn’t work well as far as me attending.

Some terms, my class was at the same time as the meetings, other terms my classes were on different days and I wasn’t up to going back up to the city that many times!

I also had a period where my symptoms were so bad that I just couldn’t go into the city at all, and was attending my class remotely!

I kept in touch with a few friends from birequest off and on, but didn’t really return for close to five years. When I came back, there were still regulars who knew me, as well as a lot of new folks. I quickly fell back into the swing of the group and felt very welcome immediately!

Once you’ve built those connections, you can develop friendships with individuals in the group who you build a good rapport with.  

You don’t need to worry at the first or second meeting if you’ll ever see them again because you know that they’ll likely be at the next meeting or the one after that.  

This means you can let the friendship develop more naturally and you can build a deeper connection with somebody when you feel comfortable and ready to do so.

Developing and maintaining friendships

As you participate in your group, there will be people you feel drawn to, or who you find things in common with. See if you can make plans with them after a meeting, or before.

two pairs of feet by a sign that reads 'passion led us here'
always follow your heart!

One of the first things is to be honest with the person about your situation – if you regularly are dealing with fatigue, let them know!  If you go through depressive periods, give them a heads up! Tell them what you feel they need to know to be a better friend and to maintain the friendship.  

For example, my movement symptoms are annoying and strange-looking, but they don’t cause me pain, and I’m totally aware when they happen.  

For me, a good friend will acknowledge my symptoms and then move on, if I stay symptomatic for prolonged periods of time, I may be approaching my ‘done’ point, and need to shift to a lower-stress/excitement activity or get ready to head out.  They don’t need to actively do anything unless I ask them to.

There are some days where I just am not up to communicating much – I need them to respect days when I’m feeling overwhelmed or have a migraine.

The other big thing in my case is that my immune system is a bit out of whack, so notifying me if they are sick and potentially readjusting plans so I reduce my risk of infection is greatly helpful.  

Mainly, I am looking for respect and understanding, which are traits that are very important in cultivating a friendship anyway.

Conclusion: Making friends while managing a disabling condition

Any form of disability or disabling condition is going to interfere in some way with your social connections and therefore your friendships.

What you need to do for yourself is find places where you can consistently meet people who share some identity or interest with you.

These spaces improve your chance of meeting people with something in common with you, increasing your chance of finding people who truly are worth being friends with.

More people than average will weed themselves out by simply not taking the opportunity to get to know you.

However, there are still people out there who you can develop close friendships with!

So, take care of yourself and keep looking for the right opportunities, and you’ll make or add to your collection of people who help you enjoy life!

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2 Comments

  1. Connecting with others a nightmare. I am not sure if its from my disability or lifelong belief, I am not worth anything? In either case, this struggle, exhausting.

    1. Adam,
      I’m so sorry you feel that way! You certaintly are deserving of attention and worthy of making new friends! I’ve been through my own periods of feeling worthless and friendless, and this was how I got myself out of it! Please think about a group that might make sense for you to join – any interest or affiliation you have that would allow you to connect with others over, and go for it! You deserve to feel happy and have those connections!

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