You're not alone
It’s natural to find comfort in discovering a person who has experienced similar difficulties. Just knowing you’re not alone helps you feel supported. You may find great advice or learn coping strategies from others. Sharing common experiences with another makes you peers, and the assistance received or is known as peer support. In the case of disability, peer support occurs when a person with a disability receives some type of assistance from one or more people who also have disabilities. The value of disability peer support has recently gained local and national recognition as beneficial, so there appears to be renewed emphasis. Disability peer support usually appears in one of several types:
Peer mentorship occurs when one person with a disability helps another person with a disability accomplish a disability-related task or goal. The mentor shares knowledge or experience with the mentee to help him or her achieve something. An example could be when the mentee wants to get a service or therapy dog but doesn’t know regulations, how to pay for it or where to get it. An appropriate mentor is someone who has had a service or therapy dog and can share resource information, funding ideas and direct the mentee to an appropriate trainer.
Peer, individual advocacy
Another type of peer support is called peer or individual advocacy. It occurs when one person with a disability helps another person with a disability ensure that he or she receives civil rights. An example of individual or peer advocacy is when an person with a disability applies for a job but is not hired because of his or her disability. A more experienced or knowledgeable peer advocate can work with the person facing discrimination to ensure that he or she knows employment laws and can assert his or her rights to employers. The peer advocate could also directly intervene by advocating with employers on behalf of the applicant. In either case, one person is helping another accomplish an individual goal.
A final type of peer support is often called systems advocacy, which typically occurs when a group of people with disabilities work together as peers to advocate for disability policy or regulations change. This change will benefit a population of people with disabilities instead of only one person. Systems advocacy happens at many levels, including something as small as change within a single housing complex or as large as change within a community, state or national system or service.
A core principle of disability peer support is a cross-disability approach. More specifically, in order for one person with a disability to be of assistance to another, each person doesn’t need to have the same disability or even same type of disability. A person with low vision can aid a person with a developmental disability, as could another person with a developmental disability. Sometimes the specific goal to be achieved or service to be accessed might make it easier for people with the same disability or type of disability to work together, but it’s not always necessary.
Peer support then
Peer support is said to have began even before the 1900s for people with psychiatric disabilities to support one another, advocate for and govern themselves. Twenty five years later, a similar approach for individuals with chemical dependency appeared in the support system, Alcoholics Anonymous. Other similar support groups appeared following similar models. In the mid 1930s and 1960s, peer support for people with psychiatric disabilities who lived in asylums reappeared with a primary goal of helping one another transition to community living.
In Part B, Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act of 1978, peer support was identified as one of four core services to be provided by independent living centers across the United States. That mandate remains, and people with disabilities today can find peer support programs through their regional independent living centers nationwide. Such programs still provide individual mentorship and advocacy as well as systems advocacy. In many states and nationally, legislative actions are due in a large part to the efforts of peer advocacy groups.
Peer support today
Consistent with the principle of cross-disability, there has recently been renewed effort in the merging of support systems for a wider variety of people with disabilities. In particular, mental health peer supports and peer supports for other disabilities have found similarities in their efforts and united for mutual benefit. At the same time, funding opportunities have become available to start new peer support programs or expand existing ones.
For people with disabilities, their family members and their friends, the existence and improvement of peer support programs is good news.
People with disabilities who feel supported are more likely to gain confidence, try new things, and accept new challenges than those who feel isolated. If you encounter obstacles to goals related to disability, you might find the information, resources and/or mentorship needed to accomplish your goals through a disability peer support program. As a person with a disability, you should check out peer support programs in your area to see how you may benefit from, contribute to or help direct those support services.
Chris Clasby lives in Missoula, Mont. He is known for his advocacy for people with disabilities. He is an avid hunter and fisherman, and of his work has centered on helping people with disabilities access the outdoors.