"We just stick together": Centering the friendships of disabled youth
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Friendship matters. Practical support, caring, moral guidance, enjoyment, improved health and greater life expectancy are but a few of its benefits. Despite living in a stigmatizing social environment where isolation is common among disabled youth, some disabled teens establish strong friendships. A nuanced understanding of these meaningful friendships from the perspective of disabled teens was constructed through this qualitative study. Teens aged 15 to 20 who self-identified as experiencing stigma due to disability were recruited from urban, suburban and rural areas of Nova Scotia, Canada. Each teen was involved in a friendship of at least six months’ duration and had a close friend (with or without a disability) who was also willing to participate. Seven boys and seven girls, all but one of whom were disabled teens, took part in the study. These seven sets of friends engaged in research interviews and participant observation sessions. Nine adults who witnessed the friendships develop over time were also interviewed. Preliminary coding was completed using Atlas.ti. This was followed by a deeper, critical approach to analysis which generated three inter-connected themes. The first theme outlines how stigma disrupts the friendships of disabled youth though a range of processes (labeling, stereotyping, status loss, separation) that arise from and contribute to ableism – discrimination against disabled people. The second theme, finding a balance between adult support and surveillance, emphasizes the crucial role adults play in facilitating the friendships of disabled youth. The final theme, disrupting oppression to create enduring friendship, highlights the strategies used by these disabled teens to make and keep friends in a stigmatizing society. Strategies most often used that appeared to be effective for participants were disrupting norms about friendship, coming out as disabled, connecting through stigma, and choosing self-exclusion. Two strategies – horizontal hostility and passing as nondisabled – were potentially harmful to disabled youth and in some ways limited friendship opportunities. Ideas to counter the harmful effects of ableism while creating lasting friendships are addressed to disabled teens, to their families, to allies in the education system, and to the broader community.