The Benefits of Having Friends with Similar Disabilities

What was this research about?

Friends play important roles in our lives. They can make us laugh, lift our spirits, and give us information or advice. People with physical disabilities may feel a special connection with friends who have the same disability, such as people they meet in support groups. One person with MS told us, “I think it’s a matter of feeling less self-conscious around [other people with MS] because they don’t see you the way other people see you.” Another person, who is blind, said about her blind friends: “We all immediately share a common bond, and have an understanding and camaraderie with each other right away.” In this study, we wanted to find out if people who had more friends sharing their disability were happier with their lives.

What did the researchers do?

We conducted two survey studies. First, we sent a survey to about 70 adults who were legally blind. On the survey, we asked the respondents to count all of their friends who were also blind, and all of their friends who were not. Then we asked them to rate how satisfied they were with their lives overall.

Then, we sent a similar survey to about 1,500 people with either muscular dystrophy (MD), multiple sclerosis (MS), post-polio syndrome (PPS), or spinal cord injury (SCI). We asked these respondents to count how many of their friends had their physical condition and how many friends had any physical disability. As in the first survey, we also asked them about their overall quality of life. Finally, we asked these respondents how severe their physical limitations were as a result of their disability condition.

What did the researchers find?

In both surveys, we found that respondents who listed more friends with disabilities said they were happier with their lives overall than respondents with less friends having disabilities. In the first survey, this connection held up no matter how many friends without disabilities the respondent had. In the second survey, we also found that almost half of the respondents listed no friends with disabilities. For these respondents, there was a strong link between having more severe physical limitations and lower overall quality of life. However, for the respondents with at least one friend having a disability, that link was weaker, meaning that their physical limitations had less impact on their quality of life. Interestingly, the results applied to having friends with any physical disability, even if the friends had different disability conditions.

How can you use this research?

If you have a physical disability, sharing experiences with others in a similar situation can bolster your well-being. Sometimes, it can be hard to find friends with similar disabilities. The following organizations may have support groups in your area:

You may also want to find your local Center for Independent Living (CIL):

Things you should know:

To learn more about the power of social support, check out our research summary on The Power of Social Support, or our article on How to Stay Physically Active and How to Bounce Back.

Original Research Article:

Silverman AM, Molton IR, Smith AE, Jensen MP, Cohen GL. Solace in solidarity: Disability friendship networks buffer well-being. Rehabil Psychol. 2017 Apr 10. DOI: 10.1037/rep0000128. [Epub ahead of print]