The Meaning of Friendship

By Donna Thomson

Some friends are for life.  Some friends stick with you through thick and thin.  Friendship is a really, really big deal for everyone, but especially for our loved ones with disabilities or age-related vulnerability.   It may be that someone with a cognitive impairment cannot carry on a conversation, let alone forge and maintain friendly relationships.  Yet, these relationships are the key to a good life.  As the mother of a young man with disabilities, I always wanted (more than anything) for Nick to be invited to birthday parties and for our doorbell to ring and to hear the words, “Can Nick come out to play?” Friendship is vitally important to me and to our family.

Hans Reinders is an author I keep coming back to when I think about the deeper meanings of friendship.  His book, “Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability,Theological Anthropology and Ethics” is a text I used often when researching my own book.   The Amazon liner notes for his book read this way:

“Does what we are capable of doing define us as human beings? If this basic anthropological assumption is true, where can that leave those with intellectual disabilities, unable to accomplish the things that we propose give us our very humanity?”

Hans Reinders here makes an unusual claim about unusual people: those who are profoundly disabled are people just like the rest of us.

He acknowledges that, at first glance, this is not an unusual claim given the steps taken within the last few decades to bring the rights of those with disabilities into line with the rights of the mainstream. But, he argues, that cannot be the end of the matter, because the disabled are human beings before they are citizens.

“To live a human life properly, they must not only be included in our institutions and have access to our public spaces; they must also be included in other people’s lives, not just by natural necessity but by choice.”

My Nicholas does not suffer from a cognitive disability, but his physical disabilities put him at risk of social isolation.  He cannot speak or read or walk.  His has low vision and no hand function.  Could he be ‘chosen’ as a friend?  YES!

Nicholas has a small number of lifelong, close friends.  One of them, Eleni Wener, met Nick when they were classmates in the 6th grade.  Eleni is the young girl holding Nick’s hand in this school photo:


Eleni was so taken with Nicholas that when she performed her Bat Mitzvah, she dedicated her financial gifts to Lifetime Networks Ottawa, an organization that I helped to start in our city. I wrote a newspaper about Eleni’s gift that appeared in our local paper:



Eleni’s friendship has informed her academic career choices – an undergraduate degree in disability studies is now being followed by graduate work in public health. She came to visit our family in London and has never lost touch over the years.


To choose a friend is a deeply human act of civility and intimacy. To be chosen as a friend is an honor that gives meaning and purpose to someone’s life. Nicholas and Eleni are good friends and always will be.