ELIZABETH — Dressing up to dance the night away at prom is a rite of passage enjoyed by a new generation of teens each spring. However, it’s an experience from which many with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism are excluded.
So, Community Access Unlimited is throwing a prom and everyone is invited.
Since this year’s theme is disco, flashing strobe lights and the thump of funky 1970s hits will transform the CAU Auditorium at 80 West Grand St. into a boogie wonderland Friday, July 27.
Gary Rubin is the president of Helping Hands, a self-advocacy group that works with CAU’s staff to create the prom and many other projects. He has helped plan the prom for several years and said the upcoming evening will be fun, especially for those with developmental disabilities, or different abilities.
“The people with different abilities, a lot of us didn’t get to go to our proms, our senior proms, when we were going to school,” Rubin said. “This kind of makes up for it because we weren’t treated so equally growing up as other kids were in school and whatnot. This kind of makes up for what we missed growing up.”
Charlene Walker, an advocate coordinator for CAU and an advisor for Helping Hands, said the prom is open to anyone of any age, not just those enrolled in CAU’s programs.
There will be food, a DJ and a photo booth. Most of the people with different abilities in attendance will be older than the typical teenage prom-goer.
Walker said that many people with developmental disabilities were not invited to their proms and others didn’t want to go because they feared being singled out, a fear that some carry into adulthood.
“Unfortunately, we have a long way to go when it come toward acceptance in this country, especially in our immediate area,” Walker said. “So, some of the individuals who are coming will have dates and are in long-term relationships, but they don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to a local club. They don’t feel as if they will be accepted. So, this is their outing to be able to go out dancing.”
Disco fever had started to recede when CAU launched in 1979, with a $90,000 grant and the desire to help take people out of developmental centers and institutions to help them live more independent lives, Walker said.
In the decades since, CAU has become a $70 million corporation with 1,200 staff members. It provides several services for people with different abilities, such as a placement program that locates housing. CAU provides supervision, whether it’s round the clock or for a few hours a day, to help balance checkbooks, draft grocery lists and other daily tasks.
In addition, CAU has other programs, including one for at-risk youth who are aging out of the foster care system; a home health service that goes to the homes of seniors to help clean gutters and mow lawns; and an employment-support program that works as a bridge between employers and employees with different abilities.
Helping Hands is run by its members, and CAU advisors such as Walker are there, she say, to “carry out what their vision is,” whether by planning presentations with school systems about the needs for people with different abilities or organizing a prom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates in the United States that about one in six children, ages 3 through 17, have a one or more developmental disabilities. It defines developmental disabilities as “a group of conditions due to an impairment in the physical, learning, language or behavior areas.”
Prom attendee Marcella Truppa looks forward to the event each year, and said she is excited to go with Mark Bloom, her boyfriend of 19 years.
“We have a great time dancing at the prom each year,” Truppa said. “He loves to dance. I can’t get him off the dance floor.”
For more information or to preregister, log on to caunj.org. A fee is charged to attend this event.