ELIZABETH, NJ — It’s prom season, and members of Community Access Unlimited came out to enjoy a special evening of music, dancing and friendship Friday, June 10, at Elizabeth’s Peterstown Community Center.
Hosted by Helping Hands self-advocacy group, CAU’s 11th annual prom offered members the opportunity to experience an iconic coming-of-age celebration. The dance was open to the public as part of CAU’s continued efforts to encourage integration between its members and the community.
CAU Executive Director Sid Blanchard said the prom is just one way to give people with special abilities the chance to live more fulfilling lives.
“We are committed to enabling people with disabilities to live full and happy lives within the community,” Blanchard said. “Perhaps nothing contributes to a fulfilled life more than the opportunity for people to come together socially and enjoy the merriment of an event such as prom. That is why we celebrate the prom each year — so people can have the opportunity to be together and have fun.”
Rolando Zorrilla, CAU’s assistant executive director, said the event was a chance for members to experience a rite of passage many had missed. “This gives them that opportunity,” said Zorrilla. “This event is more meaningful because they come together as a group.”
According to Gary Rubin, a member of CAU since 1990 and current president of Helping Hands, the prom gives members the chance to do something that people with disabilities are often denied, saying, “People with disabilities often miss their proms.”
Rubin spoke of the challenges faced by his community, and said he is trying to change the experience of those with special needs who are often silenced, ignored and marginalized by mainstream society.
“We speak up for ourselves,” said Rubin, who travels to facilities across the state to encourage residents to try to live independent lives with the help of CAU. “A lot of people are told that they can’t speak up for themselves. We’re breaking stereotypes. People think we should be seen and not heard. Who wants to hear those things? My job is to bring people out of their shells.”
According to Rubin, abuse occurs at some developmental facilities, and that part of his mission is to help close down such facilities. He said he suffered both physical and mental abuse while living in a facility, and Zorrilla maintained that there is a general push within New Jersey to close down institutions. Currently only five remain open.
In advocating for independence for people with disabilities, Rubin said, “We’re trying to tell them how good it is in society, how good it is to have your own apartment and to live independent lives.”
And responses to CAU’s prom night event have been great.
“People love it,” said Rubin. “In their heads, they’re dancing for days.”
For more information about CAU, visit www.caunj.org.