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Local Ability

Robert Frost was wrong — it's not "good fences" that make good neighbors, but parties, effort, tolerance, and open minds.

We lived on Obtuse Road North for five years, maybe six, before realizing the neighborhood had a so-called “group home.” Sure, we saw the wheelchair-ready vans going down the street, pulling into driveways now and then... but assumed they were doing day-care pick-ups and drop-offs. Who knew “those people” actually lived near us, that — horrors! — we lived in an integrated neighborhood?

I identified the group home one day when I noticed it was identical to another house just off West Whisconier. Each looked like a house-within-a house — what seemed to be a tiny red cottage, complete with small dormer windows and a chimney, emerging from the center of a more typical suburban residence. I'd always wondered how the house “worked”... but didn't find out until earlier this month, after the group-home van stopped next to me as I walked the dog, the driver opened the door, and invited me to a party.

I'd met the driver over the winter, when his van got stuck in the snow: living 50 yards away, I got shovels and a traction chock and “paid forward” the automotive good turn I'd been done the previous year (which I chronicled in my ).

So two days later, I strolled down to the Dorset Lane house... and there was “my” van driver, in white make-up and a clown outfit, handing out dog- and sword-shaped balloons to the children, and home residents, gathered around. We re-introduced ourselves: only later did I realize Pete and I had crossed paths at least twice before, once when he volunteered with Housatonic Habitat for Humanity, where I served as Press Officer for many years, and again at Datahr Rehabilitation (in its old Brookfield location off Federal Road, before it became Ability Beyond Disability) where my neighbor Claire Bannister was helped following a car-accident-induced brain injury. Small world, indeed.

Pete said he'd give me a tour of the place as soon as his customers were properly ballooned. Gazing up, I found myself standing directly beneath the “house-within-a-house,” which acted as a giant skylight over the living room. Yes, the design looked odd from the outside... but on the inside created an airy, well-lit central “square” around which various bedrooms, bathrooms, and the large kitchen radiated. I was reminded of a modern college “suite” — living quarters designed to accommodate very social beings, young men and women who thrived on social contact.

These residents, of course, weren't necessarily young... but most seemed so, being “differently abled” due to injury, genetics or some other neurological or mental impairment. I met many of them — including the Birthday Girl, who was turning 85 — and they welcomed me warmly into their home: showed me new watches, asked where I lived, commented on the beautiful day. The Hawaiian-themed cookout was about to begin, and Ability Beyond Disability staffers and volunteers (the name change dates from 2003, reflecting the evolution of the non-profit — and cultural attitudes — since Datahr was an acronym for Danbury Association to Advance the Handicapped and Retarded) filled the kitchen.

Twenty years ago, I might have described the scene as “heartbreaking.” But that was before I'd seen my parents, now 91, move to an assisted-living community in California; before many trips to villages in the Dominican Republic, where there's no talk of “mainstreaming” people with “special needs” because they never leave the mainstream. In both those places — and now, I see, down the street — people are regarded as people, accepted exactly as they are. No, not heartbreaking: just individuals getting along, as best they can, with help from friends, relations, colleagues, neighbors.

Given the small-town feel of the Dorset Lane home — six women clients live there, along with at least one full-time staffer — I assumed Ability Beyond Disability was a fairly small operation. In fact, it's huge: it operates in New York as well as Connecticut (it runs five more homes in Brookfield), serves more than 1,500 people in some 70-odd communities, has more than 900 full- and part-time employees, and is so busy actually doing good, important work that it doesn't spend a lot of time marketing itself. Which is as it should be: if you walk the walk, you don't need to talk it.

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