Opening doors to independence
Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 1, 1995

Opening doors to independence

The Community Association for Rehabilitation has a (slightly) different name, a new director and a new resolve

by Elizabeth Darling

When some Palo Alto mothers of developmentally disabled children (the word used was "retarded") banded together in 1952 to form a play group for their children, they broke new ground. At the time, no services existed in the Palo Alto area for retarded children or their families.

More than a decade later, the group, which called itself the Retarded Children's Guild, incorporated to become the Community Association for the Retarded (CAR). Construction on the CAR's own building was completed in 1966, and its familiar offices on Middlefield Road opened to 40 preschool children and 75 teen-agers.

Today, the CAR has a slightly different name, a new director and is still breaking new ground. The CAR's new focus is on making sure that anyone who is developmentally disabled has the ability to make choices for themselves, and is on the road to being as independent as possible.

In other words, the CAR has moved from "making decisions for people to helping them make decisions," said Margaret Hauck, director of human resources.

(For a look at how three individuals have benefited from the CAR's services, see the accompanying stories. The first, which starts on this page, is a profile of Samantha Lau.)

Last year, the CAR officially changed its name from Community Association for the Retarded to Community Association for Rehabilitation.

"The name change was symbolic," said new CAR director Lynda Steele, a seven-year veteran of the CAR who was honored during a reception in February. Steele replaced Ralph Scheer who left last year after 17 years in the post.

"We're moving away from caring for people, to promoting and supporting people to achieve," said Steele. "They're able to achieve out there in the community. They're beginning to have a presence and a voice. As they've grown up, we've grown up with them. We're taking much more of an individualized approach."

CAR clients also had a hand in the name change. The majority wanted to keep the acronym, but most wanted to eliminate the word "retarded." "It's not a nice word and it's not appropriate. It's embarrassing me. Don't say that word," wrote one client.

Steele said she couldn't agree more. She has witnessed the evolution of how the world has treated people with disabilities. The memories of the British hospital where she worked on her first field placement as a social worker in 1971 will be forever etched in her mind.

"The conditions were appalling," Steele recalled. "The beds were six inches apart."

The sights and sounds inside the large, Victorian building in Birmingham, which housed 3,000 patients, were shocking. "When you walked into the wards where people were living, they were so deprived that they'd be grabbing at you," she said. "That was the deepest experience for me. By witnessing how people were living, it really made me focus my energy on developing community-based services. It was one of those life-changing experiences."

The CAR serves people with a range of developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and mental retardation. People must be referred to the CAR from a regional center in order to obtain services.

Funding for the CAR comes from the state Department of Development Services, the United Way and private donations.

The CAR's many services include:

Infant and parenting classes serving more than 60 children from birth to age 3 and their caregivers.

A creative recreation program for 25 young people ranging in age from 5 to 22 including socialization training and behavioral intervention.

Respite in-home care for people of all ages and disabilities.

The LEARN program, which stands for Learning Experiences for Adults with Real Needs. LEARN helps train adults in living skills.

Two kinds of employment services which help more than 100 people work in the community, either in groups with other CAR clients or on their own.

A group home for six adults which provides 24-hour staff support and supervision.

Betty Wright Swim Center, which serves 100 consumers of all ages with developmental disabilities and more than 1,000 people whose medical conditions require therapeutic swimming.

While caring and providing security for people is important, "letting clients be the best they can be and not think there's a limit" is also crucial, said CAR's board president Nancy Parker.

"The most enjoyable thing is when we can celebrate the achievement of our clients," Steele said. "That's what keeps it going. When the achievement is complete and the person is living and working in the community."

Judy Parker is one such success story. An effervescent woman in her 30s, Judy has been in one of the CAR's employment programs for two years. She began in the Contract Employment Service program, working on assembly and packaging of products for companies who contracted with the CAR. Now, Judy has been placed in one of their employer "enclaves," a group of CAR clients working at Fujitsu.

"I wanted to find a job. I had to wait a long time," Parker said, but the wait was worth it. "I like the people there. The people there are nice. I like the cubicles. I'm not interested in the food or anything (in the cafeteria). I'm interested in the work."

The CAR is attempting to involve the people it serves more in decision-making and give them a voice in their future. One woman in the LEARN program initiated a safety program for the CAR facility.

"There's a long way to go in helping people in the community just feel comfortable around the people we serve so that we can break down the stereotypes and myths," Steele said.

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