[Image description: A support worker walking a wheelchair user across the street. Someone on the street tells the support worker, “you’re doing God’s work!”. The person in the wheelchair asks “can we go by the strip club?” and the support worker answers, “sure!”.]
A very common thing that is done in local communities is a kind of program that groups disabled people with non-disabled peers in order to bridge the gap that is often between them. These programs fall under a variety of different names, but they could all classify as Peer Buddy programs. There are several grassroots and student-led organizations that use the Peer Buddy model. Most notably, there is Best Buddies, an organization started by Anthony Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family. I’m not sure if Best Buddies was the first Peer Buddy organization in America, but many groups small and large have used the same model for decades now. My high school had a club called Partnerships for Success. While these groups have had some positive impact on individual people with disabilities, my belief is that Peer Buddy programs do more harm than good, and I think there are better ways to support and empower people with disabilities in the community.
I mainly want to address my personal experience with these programs. While I have heard of Best Buddies, I do not have anecdotal experience with them, but what I can say is that from seeing what the organization is about, it does not interest me. I do, however, have some personal experience with Partnerships For Success. This is not meant to drag the club as a whole, but is rather a critique of the existence of these kinds of clubs. The chapter of Partnerships at my high school was started by a student who was a senior my freshman year who had very humanitarian ideals. She also went on a missionary trip to the Dominican Republic that she claimed to be deeply impactful. From what I remember, she was a very well-rounded person and certainly had a heart that was in the right place, but I feel like the organization she brought to my high school ultimately did more harm than good, even if the people involved were mostly happy with the results.
Partnerships for Success was mostly filled with kids that one may consider “popular” in high school. It involved a lot of students who were white, cis, straight, from affluent families, Christian, and very involved socially. There was a lot of overlap between membership in Partnerships and Young Life, a Christian organization where all the preppy students hung out. Of course, there were also students with disabilities involved, mainly students from the segregated Special Education class. I attended a few events my sophomore and junior year. I attended these events with my sister, who was friends with many of the students there and was an officer of the club. They weren’t particularly memorable events from what I remember, but there are some key takeaways from my experience at those events. I was much more of an outcast in high school than my sister and often didn’t even like the popular kids, so I didn’t feel like I particularly had any fun with those students. The other disabled students were fine, one in particular who had Down Syndrome was great. However, I constantly felt like I and the other students with disabilities were infantilized by the non-disabled students. It honestly felt like daycare for teenagers. There was a non-speaking Autistic student at one of the events I attended who would keep retreating upstairs where it was quieter, and of course, this was seen as “elopement” instead of, perhaps, an expression of a lack of interest in the event. I also felt like most of the abled students involved were just doing it for the clout. They either did it to make themselves look like they were nice, out of pity for disabled people, because it looked good on their college applications, or all of the above. Some of the people who were members of this club harassed me and other disabled students I know outside of it, including one of their officers, who was known to be a Grade-A asshole, really showing that their membership of this club was not proof that they actually cared about us.
In fact, the very existence of this club was objectifying. Ironically, while claiming to be a club that helped empower students with disabilities by bridging the gap between them and students without disabilities, it actually only cemented that students with disabilities were the other at my school, that they were inherently unequal and needed an organized way for abled students to be nice to them, all while they are the ones not in control, and thus, not empowered. It really checks out that someone who went on a missionary trip would want to start this kind of club.
From the research I have done on Partnerships for Success, it appears as if this organization is no longer operational. There are links to their supposed website, but the link that I have seen provided takes me to a defunct webpage. Even if it is no longer active, which appears to be the case, there are still many clubs like it out there.
Seeing as this group is likely no longer at my high school, I have an idea for what can be done instead-not just at my high school or in my community specifically, but broadly speaking. How about instead of these feel-good inspiration porn-y abled savior clubs, we actually start more organizations about disability culture and community founded and led by people with disabilities? I always felt much more at home (and more importantly, empowered) in spaces with me and my friends, who were all neurodivergent in high school, and with my Autistic friends now. No abled saviors there! My high school had a Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and I had plenty of fond memories from participating in that club. There were plenty of disabled students in that club and at events that involved GSAs from other nearby high schools. I feel like using the model of clubs like GSA would be a much better fit for disability organizations than using a charity model, which ultimately empowers no one. This of course extends to college campuses, and my newly founded organization, Neurodivergent Advocates of Kennesaw, is very much based upon social justice principles. This isn’t to say I don’t want abled and disabled people to sit at the same table, just that disabled people should be the ones leading the way in anything that is done about us. As Roland Johnson liked to ask, “who’s in control? Are you in charge? Is staff in charge?” Ultimately, we the disabled people should be in control, and pairing us with abled people in order to give us a false sense of camaraderie and empowerment, does not put us in control.