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16 Aug, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

Website offers advice on friendship

Making friends isn’t always easy. And when you’re a young adult with an intellectual disability, it can be even more challenging. Social and sensory barriers and even other people’s attitudes can be obstacles to friendship, as can aging out of community programs and graduating from school.

A bilingual website from L’Arche Canada aims to help. Created in 2011, iBelong! is an online resource that offers young people with intellectual disabilities information and encouraging tips and stories on developing and sustaining friendships. Supported by Canada’s Office of Disability Issues (ODI) — which promotes the full participation of Canadians with disabilities in learning, work and community life — the website is divided into sections for young adults, their families, and educators.

“We created this website because very often, after their school years have ended, young adults with an intellectual disability are quite lonely. Many people from across Canada, both within and beyond the L’Arche network, contributed to the website,” a spokesperson for L’Arche said in a statement.

Friendships are vital

Friendships can help those with disabilities develop social and communication skills, and give them a sense of inclusion. Using an easy-to-understand format, young adults can find information on topics such as how to foster friendships, why people sometimes lose friends, how to plan get-togethers, as well as dating & sexuality.

People can read or listen to the stories as well as learn from online activities and information sheets. The website also has safety tips on issues like bullying and internet safety. Visitors can downloadable a document to familiarize themselves with the different ways to use the site, including instructions on how to change the text’s font size, listen to transcripts, or use closed captioning on the videos.

Family members and support people can learn how to help youth with intellectual disabilities connect with friends. There is also information on advocating for older children and youth, building networks, and stories of paid companions who can help facilitate friendships.

Educators can find tools to help encourage and support students with and without disabilities while they’re in the classroom and as they transition out of school. Educators across Canada who responded to the initial survey on the website’s content share their stories, comments, and suggestions. Their information can be found on “Teachers create inclusive education”, “Keys to promoting inclusion”, and “Transition planning.” And Dr. Gary Bunch of York University discusses how inclusive education is about much more than just learning.

A sense of belonging is something that all of us want and need. We want to be surrounded by those who love us, by friends, and by the members of our larger community. Dr. Gary Bunch

Input from youth, families, and educators

Planning for the website started in 2010, when 18 young people and the family and educators who support them were interviewed. Additional online surveys were completed by 81 young people, 307 family members, and 117 educators. Experts in the field of disability, especially those who worked with relationship-building and friendship circles also gave their insight. The ensuing report found that many teens and youth with an intellectual disability are quite lonely after their school years have ended, and there was interest in learning how to help ease this loneliness and form lasting friendships.

“One of the biggest challenges is that young people lack the social-skills training required to plan social events and have conversations — all skills needed in order to maintain friendships.” Educator, online survey respondent.

While the iBelong website does not create friendships, it is a much-needed source of ideas, stories, and inspiration for young people and their family members and educators.

For more information, visit ibelong.ca (and in French at jai-des-amis.ca)

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