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Literature, Gender, Disability and Friendship

Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss

Published: 2012-05-14

Synopsis and Key Points:

Twice as many teenage girls established friendships with peers who experienced forms of disabilities as non-disabled boys.

Main Digest

Literature in America, upon review, reveals that friendships between people with and without forms of disabilities involve an over-representation of women in social networks involving people with disabilities.

Friendship - A distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other, for the other's sake, and that involves some degree of intimacy. As such, friendship is undoubtedly central to our lives, in part because the special concern we have for our friends must have a place within a broader set of concerns, including moral concerns, and in part because our friends can help shape who we are as persons.

Studies on friendships many times report gender-related results. Such studies indicate that from the time of childhood onward, women tend to have a greater level of acceptance towards people with disabilities, as well as being more likely to become our friends.

Voeltz studied children's attitudes towards their peers without disabilities, finding that girls are more willing to have social contact with children who experience severe forms of disabilities as well as non-disabled peers. Voeltz also discovered a consistent gender difference in acceptance, with girls being significantly more accepting than boys at every level of contact where peers with disabilities were concerned.

Kishi, in another study involving children of school age, also found that girls are more likely than boys to establish friendships with students who experience forms of disabilities. Her research indicates the same gender pattern might exist among teenage children. Donaldson, Pezzoli, and Peck pursued a study involving non-disabled high school students which confirmed Kishi's research suspicions concerning teenagers, students with and without disabilities, and the establishment of friendships. Their study demonstrated that more than twice as many teenage girls established friendships with peers who experienced forms of disabilities as non-disabled boys.

Friendship Among Non-disabled Adults and People with Disabilities

The pattern of women being more disability friendly than men continues into adulthood. Krauss, Goodman, and Seltzer, in a study of social support network and the lives of persons who experience forms of mental retardation and live at home, discovered that women were more involved in the networks of these persons with disabilities. The three researchers reported that when adults with disabilities do have friends - 40% of their friends included members of their mother's networks. They also reported that 85% of the person with a disability's shared friends from their mother's network were women.

A study performed in Canada revealed that women comprise the majority of persons who are concerned with friendships between non-disabled persons and people with disabilities. The study was designed to understand the friendships from the perspective of people concerned with developing and facilitating friendships for people labeled as being, 'mentally handicapped.' The people who were involved in the study were facilitators, friends, researchers, or relatives. Out of the people involved, the overwhelming majority of them were women. While the study was not meant to focus on gender necessarily, it does indicate that women tend to be over-represented as friends of people with disabilities.

Literature, Language, Women, and Disability Friendship

Literature related to friendship and people in general reveals that intimacy, emotional closeness, acceptance, and support are aspects that characterize friendships involving women. Men commonly avoid intimacy and closeness in their friendships, instead tending to center them around shared activities. Friendships between people with and without forms of disabilities are often described in disability literature as having a strong resemblance to those among women - even when one or both of the friends are male.

The presentation of friendships between people with and without forms of disabilities as being akin to those between women is strengthened by the use of language to describe the qualities of people who become friends of people with disabilities. Disability literature often portrays non-disabled friends as being caring, kind, and nurturing people. They are presented as those who provide a considerable amount of practical, social, as well as emotional support to their friends who experience forms of disabilities.

Traditionally, women have filled the role of nurturers and helpers; language strengthens the image of friendships between non-disabled persons and people with disabilities as being feminine in nature. Books and monographs further reinforce this image through presentation of covers with images of hearts, people hugging, holding hands etc. Despite the fact that the gender construction of friendship between non-disabled persons and people with disabilities is most likely unconscious, it does send a powerful message that the friendships are more appropriate for women than they are for men.

From childhood through adulthood, literature associated with friendships between people with disabilities and non-disabled persons may not consciously pursue these friendships as a gender issue; although it does portray a highly-gendered image of such friendships. The literature is many times written from an inspirational perspective, encouraging non-disabled persons to establish friendships with those of us who do experience forms of disabilities. The construct of non-disabled-disabled friendships as being, 'womanly,' through literature increases the likelihood that it will inspire women instead of men, who commonly shy away from intimacy and emotional closeness in friendships.

In addition, most of the people who work in the field of developmental disabilities are women. The majority of students in special education are women, as well as those involved in other disability-related training programs. The gender construction of non-disabled-disabled friendships presented in literature makes it easier for women to identify with these relationships.

Feminine images associated with literature about non-disabled persons, people with disabilities, and friendships are less-likely to inspire men to establish these friendships. Due to the books from which people learn about the constructs of friendships like these and the perhaps unconscious gender focus, the books are more likely to find non-disabled women as friends of people with disabilities.


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