Sense's report, 'A Right to Friendship' published last month highlighted some significant evidence of the impact of loneliness and disability, based on the survey of over 1000 disabled people. Friendships are amongst the most valuable relationships we have. Friendship provides emotional support at times of crisis, boosts happiness, reduces stress, improves self-confidence and is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. People with disabilities told Sense that want friendships but experience considerable difficulties in making and maintaining them - and this impacts their lives in a profound way. Having the opportunity to meet, make and stay in contact with friends can be particularly challenging.
Whilst there are established solutions to support older people when their circles of support diminish, disabled people said that there are less support mechanisms for disabled people who may struggle to establish and maintain friendships in the first place. Traditional befriending schemes have been targeted at older people experiencing loneliness rather than younger disabled adults wanting support for friendships. Some disabled people told us that befriending schemes were older fashioned and alienating.
Sense's report recommended an expansion of interventions to support people to establish and maintain friendships including a volunteer buddy. A buddy is not a relative or a paid worker but rather is a volunteer who offers a young disabled person a supportive friendship on shared hobbies or interests. This provides a natural building ground for the development of relationships based on a common interest; and placing such valued relationships in the mainstream allows barriers to be broken down between disabled and non-disabled people as enjoyment and positive relationships become visible.
A buddying scheme can fill the social and emotional gap that may not be met by existing statutory provision. The voluntary nature of a buddying arrangement, and the fact that time spent together is mutually negotiated, offers a different kind of a relationship than with family members or paid professionals. It also offers volunteers a valuable opportunity to contribute to their local community, have fun, and learn new skills
Alex is a 21 year old who has a hearing and a visual impairment. He is able to walk short distances but needs a wheelchair when going further afield. He is in his final year of college and has a part time job. He lives with his parents and his siblings live in the same town. Outside of his family relationships he is socially isolated as although Alex is extremely sociable, his visual impairment means that traveling alone at night is difficult for him and his finances don't allow for him to take taxis regularly to go and do things he enjoys and to meet new people.
With a buddying intervention: Alex has a buddy called Claire and together they go to disco nights at their local pub as and when they occur. Claire meets Alex at home and they travel together by bus to the gig, where they meet other local people who share similar interests. Alex and Claire both get to go to more live gigs and make new friends who enjoy the same kind of music and activities
Sense is calling on local authorities to commission buddying services that support the establishment and maintenance of friendships for people with disabilities. We see it as a vital mechanism to reduce isolation and improve wellbeing by assisting a person to engage in activities in their local area; in supporting volunteers to engage more with disabled people and in delivering a preventive service that reduces the need for unplanned care.
People will walk in and out of your life but a buddy is someone who is there in time of need.