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Supporting Friendship Development For Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities

by Amy T. Parker

Miranda is a beautiful 8-year-old brunette who happens to be deafblind. She attends her neighborhood school, where she spends part of her day in an inclusive classroom and part of it receiving one-on-one tutoring. While she's in the general education classroom, an interpreter works with her using tactile sign language to help her access the environment. Although Miranda is using her cane to travel more independently, she still relies on the interpreter to guide her most of the time. Jane is a classmate who is fascinated with Miranda's form of communication and watches her from across the room. Although Jane would like to talk to Miranda, she feels unsure of how to approach her. Because of scheduling challenges, there is limited time for Miranda to socialize and the teacher is challenged to prepare students for upcoming statewide testing. Miranda is the first deafblind student to be served by this district, and though the educational team is striving to meet her needs, she spends most of her day working with adults, leaving little time to socialize with peers and build friendships.

"Miranda" and "Jane" are both composites of real students and real friendship challenges that are taking place around the country. While this particular story is based on multiple students' experiences, it serves to illustrate some of the realities that individual students with low-incidence disabilities must navigate in being socially included.

Fostering friendships between students with disabilities and typical peers may be one of the most rewarding roles for teachers and family members to play in encouraging student development, achievement, and quality of life. In particular, students with low-incidence disabilities face specific challenges forming positive relationships with peers because of disability-specific hurdles in mobility, or in accessing communication as well as environmental information. At the same time, barriers may exist in schools that serve as obstacles to students in forming friendships.

First, let's define what is meant by the term "low-incidence." In a practical sense, it has been used to designate students who have disability diagnoses that are not prevalent. Such categories have included students with hearing impairments, visual impairments, deafblindness, traumatic brain injury (TBI), orthopedic impairments, multiple disabilities, complex health needs, and those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Within this grouping, there is great diversity of functioning, abilities, and needs. Parents and family members, particularly in rural environments, may struggle to find local services and disability-specific support groups. Fortunately, there are ways that teams can meaningfully support students as well as promote school cultures that support diverse types of friendships. The following seven suggestions are a start:

Of the many things that can be done to engender genuine friendships, making peer relationships a priority in the educational program may be the most critical. Often social and communication skills that are taught through authentic relationships with peers do more to increase the student's quality of life and sense of belonging than what may be offered through structured adult teaching sessions alone.

In the opening scenario of this article, a possible next step would be for Miranda's team to use a collaborative process to create some goals for integrating an iPad with several sign language applications into classroom activities. The classroom teacher could use activities like peer-interviewing as a part of literacy instruction for the entire class. Miranda, with the support of her inclusion teacher and interpreter, could design interview questions for learning about her peers. Jane could be allowed to use an iPad to search for relevant sign language responses as a part of her writing assignments and to practice them with Miranda directly. Later, Miranda's general education teacher could design social studies lessons that feature the life of Helen Keller. Miranda, with support, would then have an opportunity to teach the entire class some sign language and show them how she's learning to use her cane to travel. Miranda's mom could work with the team to develop play dates with Jane, integrating opportunities to share activities as well as technology to build direct communication.

Through team support, creativity, and technology, a natural spark of friendship between Miranda and Jane could be encouraged. For both girls, the gifts of friendship would make school and life much more meaningful.



Miner, I. D. (1997). People with Usher syndrome, Type II: Issues and adaptations. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 91(6), 579-589.

Wolfensberger, W. (1992). A brief introduction to social role valorization as a high-order concept for structuring human services (2nd ed.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry.

Amy T. Parker is Research Assistant Professor in Special Education in the Department of Educational Psychology & Leadership at Texas Tech University, Lubbock. She may be reached at or 806/742-1998.



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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Palmer, S., Heyne, L., Montie, J., Abery, B., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2011). Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities, 24(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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