[The following article was written by Nicholas Lutz, an attorney with my law firm, Marshall, Parker and Weber.]
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Peter Fisher, executive director of the Pocono Regional Office of Community Options, an alternative living arrangement for disabled adults. Touring the office, seeing the resident’s homes and engaging with the staff was quite an experience for me.
Community Options provides an alternative to more traditional group home living for disabled adult individuals. The organization finds and acquires appropriate housing for two or three (max) individuals. Typically, the homes are three bedroom ranch-style buildings which are then customized to the needs of the residents.
You can learn a lot about someone by visiting their home. I had the good fortune to visit a number of the homes Community Options is using for their program. If I had to sum up my experience in one word, I would use empowerment. Community Options is an organization where the employees practice what is preached and the end result is that the residents are empowered to engage in the world around them and make decisions.
When you step into one of the Community Options homes, you’ll see an array of items that interest the residents there – video game systems, stereo equipment, model vehicles, spiffy hats, posters, etc. You may find pictures of family members and mementos from outings the resident has been on. You will see that the living space is truly tailored to the needs and wishes of the residents. Choice of entertainment and even décor are left to them to decide. The residents may, for example, choose what color to paint their room and even paint the space themselves if they are so inclined.
You can also learn a lot from what you don’t see. You won’t see company logos or markings. The home doesn’t have any sign that would announce to a passerby that it belongs to Community Options. The car the company provides for transportation is just a normal, unmarked car lacking any company logos or pictures. This is by design - these are measures the company takes to provide a sense of normalcy for the residents.
Peter explains that he has two goals for each of his residents – ‘normalization and dignity of risk.’ His desire is that residents lead as normal and independent a life as possible and engage in activities they want to participate in even where there may be some risk involved because the individual has a disability. From touring the Community Options homes, it’s apparent that the organization takes the goal of normalization seriously.
Assisting residents to accomplish their goals is also important. Frequently, Peter says – ‘if a resident wants to go horseback riding we’ll find a way to help them go horseback riding.’ There’s an element of danger to any of us engaging in horseback riding. With proper accommodations, an individual with a disability should be able to assume that risk just as someone without a similar disability may.
Although Peter often uses horseback riding as an example of what he means by ‘dignity of risk,’ my sense is that it’s a true interest the organization has helped a former or current resident pursue. Just as with the goal of normalization, the organization practices what Peter preaches in helping residents pursue their interests even where there may be some risk involved.
The program is flexible so that residents who aspire to be employed can work towards that goal and other residents participate in day programs so that they are out of the house and engaged in the community. As a testament to the fact that residents are strongly encouraged to engage in the community, I can share that while I was touring the homes, all residents were out and about, participating in their day programs.
Another major perk Community Options residents enjoy is individual attention. Each resident works closely with a number of staff members throughout the day and because the maximum number of residents per home is three they each receive a great deal of personal attention.
One of the greatest pleasures of my morning was speaking with a house manager. He was able to tell me all about his resident. He told me about his likes and dislikes, past outings they had been on and future outings they had planned. He gushed about the progress his resident has made since being enrolled in the program and spoke about ways they are helping empower his resident to work towards independence. The enthusiasm he showed when speaking about his resident’s progress and the passion he displayed about the Community Options program was palpable. It was impressive to see and hear and really capped off a terrific morning for me.