The phenomenology of relationships between typical and disabled people

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Steve Taylor


Friendship, Special education, Social psychology

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


The interest in the nature and extent of friendships between disabled and nondisabled people is relatively new in the fields of special education and rehabilitation. This interest appears to be a logical extension of the development of community based human services for people with mental retardation. While some such friendships do exist, in recent years, attempts to establish regular contacts and encourage close ties between people with disabilities and typical community members have increased. But little is known about the nature and meaning of friendships that do exist between nondisabled and disabled individuals.

To learn more about the development of friendships between people with mental retardation and nondisabled individuals, indepth interviews and participant observation sessions were conducted with four pairs of friends. Each pair was made up of one person labelled mentally retarded and one nondisabled person. Both people in each pair identified themselves as friends. Data were collected on three broad areas; first, how the people met, began and maintained their friendships; second, the meanings of this particular friendship for the informants; and third, the characteristics of "friendship" in general.

The data demonstrate the possibility of genuine friendships between people with and without disabilities. Both the informants with and without disabilities actively created their friendship with each other, although it was the person with disabilities who initiated the friendship in three out of the four pairs. Factors that influenced if and how the friendships were maintained included the length of time that people knew each other, critical events in the friendship, and the nature and number of other relationships in which the individuals were already involved. While all of the informants referred to their relationship as a friendship, the nondisabled informants categorized their friendship with the disabled friends in certain ways. Categories that emerged included that of parent, co-worker, mentor, and volunteer.

While the specifics of each friendship are unique, the informants shared similar ideas and expectations about the characteristics of friendship in general. These include the mutual, exclusive, and voluntary nature of friendship, the rights, obligations, and responsibilities of friends to each other and the positive regard or affection found between friends.


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