The Power of Friendship

By Lorna Sutherland

Lorna is a PHD student in Elementary Education at University of Alberta and teaches with Edmonton Public Schools


With a community of friendship in one’s classroom, much can be achieved. This is the power of what friendship can do for students and how it can build community in both the classroom and the wider school community. Through one-to-one development of good friendships, students are encouraged to embrace common goals. Students will learn that friendship is more than clicking a button; rather, it is a deep place of mutual respect and support. As a teacher and a researcher, I am interested in the friendships students engage in, and I am especially interested in how young people with developmental disabilities engage in friendships with nondisabled peers within inclusive environments.

When one considers a young person with a developmental disability, one would think that his or her overall social experience might differ from that of a nondisabled peer. Yet, a young person with a developmental disability who is in an embracing educational environment (Villa & Thousand, 1995) will develop friendships with their nondisabled peers. My study (Sutherland, 2010) explored friendships; and, from that study, I produced a number of podcasts. Central to those podcasts is the joy and happiness expressed between young people who share many things in common and who work to maintain their friendships, as we all must do.

Lutifiyya (1991) found an exchange and equality between people who were happy to be in relationships; whereas, previously, most researchers limited their research to only persons with similar impairments. Taylor and Bogden (1989) found the relationships they studied between persons with mental challenges and nondisabled peers were strong, real, and enduring. My own research (Sutherland, 2010) found that friendships in dyads between a young adult with a developmental disability and a nondisabled peer to be rich experiences with many beneficial qualities for the young people involved in them. I also found that proximity of inclusion provides people with a way into friendships and relationships. Furthermore, without inclusive attitudes and beliefs and the close opportunities these provide, we have to ask the question, how is there a way otherwise?

A young person who has a disability and a nondisabled peer will benefit from being in friendship in many ways (Sutherland, 2010). They spend time together both in and out of the school environment and have a really good time doing it. Some peers may provide lifelong friendships for people with a developmental disability. Additionally, future employment and security may be provided through person-to-person contacts. Inclusive education initiatives, at all levels of learning and the wider community, must work to find ways to fill the void that can be a harsh reality for vulnerable people. Some young people find themselves alone in competitive and harsh environments; here, left to fend for themselves, they find it hard to thrive or even reach out to others.

Within the pilot podcast I created for this study “Alex and Jollean,” [http://dascentre.educ.ualberta.ca/media] benefits of the friendship are evident between the young people, and their friendship provides satisfaction and happiness. Additionally, like the other podcasts shot specifically using qualitative on-camera interviews, this podcast exemplifies what is important within their friendships. As Alex said, “I like being in a friendship with Jo,” I want to have a good time: I have had a lot of experience with her, having a great talk and a great laugh.” He also adds, “I think our friendship is very important.” Jollean notes, “He has strengthened my personality.” “I have more confidence.” “I have become a better friend in general.” [http://dascentre.educ.ualberta.ca/media]

Shani and Aimee do things together, “walk together,” and “cook together.” They learn how to get along with one another within a specific framework of support worker and person who has a developmental disability. They become closer through facilitation, and a “paradigm switch” occurs that takes them beyond their current limitations into friendship. The self-esteem Aimee develops because of their friendship and “her joy in just the simple things of life” that they share “energizes the two of them.”

Shani talks about “the intangibles that I can’t describe, that are just our relationship;” and, “although I usually like words there are no words for me to put a finger on this friendship that feels like it’s older than we are.” “Like we were friends somewhere before,” says Shani. Aimee agrees with her. Aimee has an obvious rapport with Shani and answers her questions about what friends do without hesitation. [http://dascentre.educ.ualberta.ca/media]

Emily and Alethea met at a university where Alethea was the volunteer note taker for Emily in a criminology class. They too have found a common purpose in their friendship that interests them both, and they speak of the characteristics they like in friends. They mention “honesty,” “fun to be around,” and becoming “the person who helps you be a better version of yourself.” Emily and Alethea are connected by their passion of self-discovery as well as through educational concerns of various kinds. These relationships demonstrate that commonalties cement the underlying foundation of their friendship, and these commonalities must be understood and emphasized in a positive way to others. Beyond that powerful foundation of sharing something in common with another person is a shared purpose within these friendships.

Furthermore, nondisabled peers experience changes in beliefs and attitudes in inclusive educational experiences. As Fisher (1999) reported, “Improvements in self-concept, growth in social cognition, increased tolerance of others, reduced fear of human differences, development of personal principles, and interpersonal acceptance and friendships” (p. 459). Fisher believes a lack of contact between people with disabilities and people without disabilities will lead to further segregation and discrimination. The advantage of these dyadic friendships is that they are not one-sided because nondisabled peers have and can develop the attributes of caring, compassion, and empathy for others who are more vulnerable.

My research led me to believe that the attributes of caring, compassion, and empathy, as well as social justice (Van der Klift and Kunc, 2002), should be taught and encouraged and are relevant at all levels of education (Sutherland, 2010). We need to ask how to reach young people who will make a difference in subsequent generations. As we care for the vulnerable in our societies, the ripple effects will extend to reach an ever-wider group of people.

Young people need to build friendships (Hartup, 1989; Santrock, 2008) as everyone does, and the young people within this study described benefits from being friends. As a researcher, when I better understand what inclusive means, I think of creating a community where people are cared for, respected, and embraced. Creating such a community of young people requires leadership where compassion is shown and positive climates of belonging are encouraged.

I no longer believe it is enough to sit back and let things happen. We can make a difference through who we are and the direction we give our students. The values of inclusive education must include integrity and care for others. We must work hard to create these characteristics within our classrooms; for, without these friendships, which create community, we are lost.


Fisher, D. (1999). According to their peers: Inclusion as high school students see it. Mental Retardation, 37(6), 458-467.

Hartup, W. W. (1989). Social relationships and their developmental significance. American Psychologist, 44(2), 120-126.

Kunc, N., & Van der Klift, E. (2002). Beyond benevolence. In J. S. Thousand, R. A. Villa, & A. I. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and collaborative learning (pp. 21-28). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Lutfiyya, Z. M. (1991). A feeling of being connected: Friendships between people with and without learning disabilities. Disability and Society, 6(3), 233-245.

 Santrock, J. W. (2008). Life-span development (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Sutherland, L. (2010). Friendships in dyadic relationships between a young adult with a developmental disability and a nondisabled peer. Retrieved June 20, 2014 from http://hdl.handle.net/10048/1088

Sutherland, L. (Producer). Alex and Jollean. [Audio visual podcast]. Retrieved March, 6, 2015 http://dascentre.educ.ualberta.ca/media

Sutherland, L. (Producer). Shani and Aimee. [Audio visual podcast]. Retrieved March, 6, 2015 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaaKCfkTQy4

Sutherland, L. (Producer). Alethea and Emily. [Audio visual podcast]. Retrieved March, 6, 2015 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNVxVe3W1_o

Taylor, S., & Bogdan, R. (1989). On accepting relationships between people with mental retardation and non-disabled people: Towards an understanding of acceptance. Disability and Society, 4(1), 21-46.

Villa, J., & Thousand, J. (1995). The rationales for creating inclusive schools. In R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.), Creating an inclusive school (pp. 28-44). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.