New York Times
Accepting the Retarded, As Long as They're Old...
By JOSEPH BERGER
Published: November 14, 2008
Long Island Westchester
Connecticut New Jersey
THE house on Claudet Way looks unremarkable — another handsome ranch on a winding suburban lane of comfortable families, lingering empty nesters and ghosts that haunt the shrubs at Halloween time.
What makes the house stand out is its residents — four elderly men and three elderly women who are mentally retarded. The house is a group home, an effort to let the residents feel the same delights of suburban living that others do by placing them in a residential rather than institutional setting.
So far it has worked out. After 14 years, the neighbors, some of whom first objected to a group home locating on the block, have more than made peace with it. Children even drop by for treats at Halloween and get big smiles and waves from the residents.
But now the house is at the center of another of those not-in-my-backyard flare-ups. The residents at Claudet Way need to move out to a setting better able to deal with their accumulating frailties — one that at a minimum is suited to wheelchairs. In their place, Westchester Jewish Community Services, the nonprofit agency that operates the home, wants to move in six men in their 20s and 30s who have developmental problems.
Some neighbors are protesting, making their objections known to the agency and to local government officials. They say they worry about these younger, sturdier men wandering onto their lawns and walks. They worry that cars belonging to visitors will clog the tranquil street.
“I care about them molesting children who won’t be able to go out unattended,” said Paul D. Warner, a retired professor of auditing who has lived on the block since 1971.
“It’s not right, because they shouldn’t put that much stress and fear on the parents,” said Lois Schneider, a former schoolteacher who raised a son and daughter a few doors away. “I mean, children should be able to play, and there shouldn’t be a fear that they might be accosted or bothered.”
The agency has been through this kind of tumult with almost every one of its 12 group homes in Westchester, which accommodate a total of 85 men and women. And according to Dale Wang, the agency’s director of community relations, in 30 years the agency has not had a single serious case of harm to a neighbor.
“People are afraid of what they don’t know,” she said.
Residents of the suburbs tend to want their streets to be as close as possible to the soothingly normal land of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Dick Van Dyke.” But outside 1960s television, suburban families are seldom typical. Families split up in divorces, others come from foreign cultures, others include children with disabilities, and a neighborhood sometimes has to deal with the ripples. In the case of mentally retarded children, society has to find ways to allow them to function as independently as possible as they grow up.
Steven R. Yellen, the agency’s assistant executive director, said mentally retarded people, like everyone else, have a right to live where they choose.
A model for what the neighbors on Claudet Way can expect is not too far away on Cannon Lane, a similar group home for younger men. On Election Day, the seven residents — all between 30 and 60 — came home from jobs doing mailing or stacking books, and then, as most Americans did, they went off to vote.
Jeffrey — the agency asked that last names be omitted to protect the residents’ privacy — had made up his mind.
“Don’t forget to vote for Obama,” he urged his housemates. “He’s a good senator.”
Warren, looking skeptical, thought otherwise. He was voting for John McCain.
“He’ll make a good president,” Warren said. “He knows what he’s talking about.”
Upstairs, Michael, a bashful, balding man of 31 who works part time in the Larchmont Public Library, was tidying his already orderly room. Michael sometimes gets annoyed with housemates for borrowing his CDs without asking. But he also has a sign pinned to his bookshelves that lists “10 Things I Like About Myself,” including “I like that I am funny and I make people laugh.”
The agency has not yet picked out the six younger men who would be moved to Claudet Way, but it says it will screen them and provide a staff of about 18 to care for them. It will permit some residents to move freely about town and require round-the-clock supervision for others.
“We don’t think this is a scary place,” Ms. Wang said.
Usually, the agency sets up a house after receiving requests from enough parents who realize that they won’t be around forever and that their grown children will need to learn to live on their own. In the case of the Claudet Way house, the agency, which commonly takes clients from all religions, also wants to set up a kosher home for the offspring of observant Jews.
The agency is accredited and financed by the State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and the move — which would require renovations to the ranch house — is being delayed during the austerity of a fiscal crisis. The older residents will remain for now. Nevertheless, the agency is preparing for the day the project resumes, and it expects the controversy to die down.
Ms. Wang knows from experience. She was here 14 years ago when there was a hubbub over the first residents at Claudet Way.
“I also remember that months later when we had a holiday party, the neighbors came by,” she said. “And everything was very friendly.”