Janet Stevens column: Housing options for the intellectually disabled

Janet Stevens /

Published Mar 28, 2014 at 12:01AM

March is, in case you missed it, Intellectual Disabilities Awareness Month, so named by Ronald Reagan in 1987.

That was near the beginning of what is becoming a new world for the intellectually disabled in the United States, a change that began in 1975 with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. That law and its successors require public schools to integrate them as much as possible — and the definition of what is possible is broad. Special ed kids came out of the classroom at the back of the building, where they’d been isolated for years.

There have been equally dramatic changes outside the classroom. Oregon used to institutionalize people with intellectual disabilities in its asylum for the insane. That ended in 1908, when Fairview Hospital, later Fairview Training Center, opened.

It was not a particularly nice place to live, to put it mildly, and it said goodbye to its last resident at 1:15 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2000. I suspect no one misses it or the abuses that were committed there in the name of public welfare.

Today in Oregon, adults with intellectual disabilities generally have a handful of housing options. They may live in group homes or in adult foster homes. In Bend, parents and others have built two private apartment complexes and a smaller “quad” dwelling, as well, that combined have fewer than 100 residents. Some live independently in general-market housing and some live with family members. Portland, as you might expect, offers more variety.

One in particular caught my eye.

L’Arche-Portland is something different. It’s a small faith-based community consisting of two homes with four “core” residents and another three or four assistants in each, all of whom live, play, worship and work to build a home — not a house — and all that implies. The core residents are intellectually disabled and have a lifelong place at L’Arche-Portland if they want it.

Most do, says Tamara Yates, the development and communications director for L’Arche-Portland.

It’s no wonder. L’Arche assistants are not hired simply because they’ve worked with the intellectually disabled. Instead, they, current staff and core residents work together in a discernment process that seeks to assure all that they share values and understand both the gifts and challenges life in L’Arche presents.

Those beliefs center in part on this: “Our weaknesses and vulnerabilities are not to be hidden from others, but welcomed and shared,” according to the group’s website.

I think that translates this way: L’Arche members value each other for who and what they are. Those with disabilities enrich the lives of those without them, and vice versa.

And the two groups learn from one another.

That is hardly likely to come as a surprise to parents, siblings and close acquaintances of someone with an intellectual disability. My daughter Mary, as an example, has a full catalog of music in her head. She can identify pieces in genres from classical to hip hop to her mother’s ’60s rock ’n’ roll after hearing a tiny handful of notes. She can beat her certifiably bright cousins in any informal game of “Name that Tune.”

More important, she is blind to the disabilities of others. She doesn’t see obesity or halting walks or twitches or much of anything that can make one person stand out from the crowd.

In her world, people are simply people. It’s a wonderful quality that can bring her mother up short when Mom begins to think something disparaging about someone else.

L’Arche International celebrates its 50th year this year. L’Arche Portland, one of 18 L’Arche communities in the U.S. and part of a group of communities found in 40 countries and on six continents, opened its doors in 1987, says Yates.

L’Arche, by the way, means The Ark. It is a social service agency by definition, though that doesn’t really get to the heart of it. Instead, I think, it is a series of families, some members disabled, others not, united by their faith and their belief that each one of them is valuable. In a perfect world, that belief would be shared by everyone.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.