C.A.R. changes name to Abilities United

Nonprofit wants to provide full social integration for developmentally disabled people

After 45 years as C.A.R., the Community Association for Rehabilitation -- a Palo Alto nonprofit that serves developmentally disabled children and adults -- is changing its name to Abilities United.

The new name will be unveiled at a kick-off celebration on Wednesday, March 5.

"We don't want to keep answering the phone and hearing from people who want their automobiles repaired," Lynda Steele, C.A.R.'s executive director, said.

But there's more behind the name change than reversing confusion, according to Steele. Abilities United is forging the "final revolution" for children and adults with developmental disabilities, she said.

That revolution aims to fully integrate developmentally disabled people with the mainstream population in schooling, work and volunteer opportunities. Social inclusiveness has been the missing link for people with developmental disabilities, she said.

Institutionalization was once the only option for people with developmental disabilities, Steele recalled of her early career. Places such as C.A.R., which offered in-community support, sprang up in the 1960s as parents and advocates revolted against shutting disabled persons away. In recent years, job training, placement and independent-living skills have given developmentally disabled persons the chance to live and work in the community, she said.

But the revolution isn't over, according to Steele.

"The next -- and hopefully final -- stage will be having people with disabilities being served side by side with people without disabilities, (with the belief that) the sum is greater than the separate parts," she added.

To that end, C.A.R.' s new name, Abilities United, reflects the new strategy.

It's a trajectory the organization has already been following for the last few years.

The Betty Wright Aquatic Services program offers side-by-side swim lessons for disabled and non-disabled children, with water as the "great equalizer," Steele said.

And the nonprofit's Milestones Preschool teaches children with disabilities alongside non-disabled children. The kids recognize they have similarities, which is Abilities United's goal for all of mainstream society, she said.

Palo Alto resident Judy Richardson's grandson is not disabled, but he attended the preschool. He now goes to a "regular" school, but one of his best friends is an autistic boy he met at Milestones.

"So -- hallelujah," said Richardson, whose son Michael is developmentally disabled.

Michael and Judy have been involved with C.A.R. for 38 years. The organization's advocacy for social integration has been effective in Palo Alto, resulting in special programs in the Palo Alto Recreation Department, American Youth Soccer Organization and the YMCA, she said.

In September, Abilities United launched a pilot program called Community Connections to bring developmentally disabled people into volunteer service. Participants work with organizations such as the Red Cross Palo Alto Chapter, the Marine Science Institute, Community School for Music and Arts and the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy. They do office work, care for animals or clean up the environment. The response on both sides has been enthusiastic, according to Steele.

"We want to become the 'go-to' place on how to create a model of a community without barriers," Steele said.

Abilities United is also developing more services for Spanish-speaking clients and children with autism-spectrum disabilities -- two groups that are increasing in numbers, she said.

According to the California Department on Developmental Services (DDS), the Spanish-speaking population with developmental disabilities has grown from 25 percent in 1995 to 32 percent today.

Autism has grown by 351 percent since 1995, according to the DDS.

"Many of these children are entering our After School Socialization program and Adult Services," said Wendy Kuehnl, Abilities United director of marketing.

As developmentally disabled adults age, new community services will need to be developed to accommodate their growing population, Kuehnl added. Due to medical advances, people with developmental disabilities now have normal life expectancies. In the U.S. there are currently 528,000 people with developmental disabilities who are older than 60. That number is projected to increase to 1,065,000 by 2030, according to the DDS.

Richardson has seen the organization blossom over the years.

"They have grown from a group of dedicated volunteers with their hearts in the right place to an organization with a heart and a brain," better able to evaluate the growing body of developmental disabilities, she said.

The new name change is actually the second in the group's history. An earlier change marked a big step forward in perceptions: The original name for C.A.R. was Community Association for Retarded, Inc., which was changed by the early 1990s to Community Association for Rehabilitation, Inc. -- a name that reflected not just a label but a promise and a potential.

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