Social Support – An Important Pillar For People With Disabilities
Many of us turn to our loved ones and close friends for support in times of trouble. However, help may not always be so forthcoming or readily available when we need it mos. Do you know that social support is actually a resource that can be defined, measured and cultivated? Social worker Benjamin Han explains.
What constitutes social support
In recent years, the study of social support, or help received from acquaintances, has gained traction with academics in the field of social sciences. It is now acknowledged as a legitimate and productive asset of an individual in times of acute or prolonged crisis.
The roots of social support can be traced back to early works in sociology where social ties and relationships were studied. Studies found that groups with the weakest social ties were at the greatest risk of suicide (Spaulding & Simpson, 1951). John Bowlby, a prominent psychiatrist, formulated the importance of attachment behaviours, particularly of children towards their caregivers, as a crucial factor in a child’s overall development (Bretherton, 1992). In recent times, social support has come to include the function of social feedback, where support from close ones provided a protective ‘buffering’ effect against stressful experiences.
Basic concepts of social support
The basic concepts of social support revolve primarily around social networks, supportive behaviour and support appraisal.
Social networks refer to the system of relationships one has with others. This ranges from immediate family members to cliques and acquaintances. Within this, focus is placed on support networks where the smaller, more stable grouping of close ones can be relied upon whenever external assistance is required.
Supportive behaviour involves an intended exchange of resources between at least two individuals, with at least one party viewing the act as beneficial to the recipient. Think of the times in school when your classmate lent you a pen for an exam or notes to copy.
Taking the example above on the help from a classmate, support appraisal is how the receiver of help assesses the network and behaviour properties of the person who provided the help. For example, an individual may view encouragement from his brother as more valuable than the cash donation of an acquaintance.
This aspect of social support is important as research shows a clear distinction between Perceived and Received Social Support (PSS and RSS). PSS deals with the perception of help that can potentially be given by an individual, while RSS addresses the perception of tangible, measurable forms of help actually provided. Both forms of support have yielded their own unique advantages in improving clients’ well-being and must therefore be analysed separately.
Benefits of social support for people with disabilities
So how does social support benefit people with disabilities?
Stress may force one to adjust his behavioural patterns. We see this in instances when a person acquires a disability through a traffic accident and has to cope with chronic strains in daily living, especially when the disability is permanent or long-term in nature. Caregiving for a disabled relative often leaves family members experiencing burnout or even depression. These stress factors have a negative effect on the overall psycho-emotional health of the person with disabilities.
In such instances, social support can act as a moderator, or a buffer, between stress and health. Even though the stress factors are not removed or resolved, the harmful effects are diluted by the presence of strong social support.
Building up social and support networks
Therefore it helps for people with disabilities to socialise more and build up social and support networks.
Befriending is one good option. This provides opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogues and establish friendships, perhaps with volunteers who make regular visits.
However, for befriending to be effective, the volunteers must first be trained in the relevant communication techniques such as understanding body language and attentive listening. More importantly, there must be a match between the befriender and the person with disabilities in order for a genuine friendship to develop naturally over time. If both parties have vastly different value systems and characters, it will be almost impossible to expect any positive bonding to occur. Therefore, it is important to have a trained professional, such as a social worker, to monitor and supervise the initial stage of meeting and rapport building.
Joining a support group is an alternative to befriending. In a support group, a homogenous group of individuals with similar profiles or experiences form a platform for sharing (eg. caregiving tips) and providing emotional support. Gathering people with similar disabilities normalises it and helps reduce their sense of stigma arising from his or her prevailing condition.
Due to the general similarity of their situations, group members should be able to relate better to each other and foster a bond. A group can be made up of stroke patients, victims of traffic accidents, or even parents of children with cerebral palsy, to name a few. Often, such groups are led by an ‘expert leader’ or a professional with relevant training and experience on the topic. The leader must be able to facilitate interaction within the group, as well as educate them with the necessary technical expertise (eg. how to cope with depression etc).
In conclusion, social support can potentially be a valuable asset in helping people with disabilities cope with stress. Social workers play a key role in their assessment so that the ideal level of social support can be available to them. Social workers can also assist in drawing up intervention plans that capitalise on these resources and supplement other forms of help rendered by external parties (eg. donations, subsidies). With such support, people with disabilities do not lose hope thinking that they are ‘all alone and powerless’ in dealing with their disabilities.
Spaulding, J. A., & Simpson, G. (1951). Suicide: A Study in Sociology by Emile Durkheim. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press
Bretherton, I. (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775