Roger Butt, whose mental and physical disabilities once consigned him to 40 years at the District's asylum for the mentally retarded, is away at school this month -- learning to make better use of his communication device and taking yoga on the side.
"I am in classes all day," he recently e-mailed his friend, Linda Tarlow. "I am learning so much. Lots of people are working on my device to make it work better for me."
Severely crippled by cerebral palsy and unable to walk or speak, Butt also cannot read or write. He typically communicates by nodding or blinking yes or no to questions. His communication device has picture icons and pre-recorded messages, and a care assistant helps him compose and send e-mails.
Tarlow, a lawyer from Silver Spring, met Butt in early 2000, when she volunteered to visit him twice a month as part of a D.C. Superior Court watchdog program that matches mentally disabled wards of the city with private citizens. By then, he was living in a group home in a bleak, crime-ridden neighborhood in Southeast Washington. Until Tarlow came into his life, he had never gone on regular weekend outings or had a birthday party or visited a museum.
Tarlow showed him his first waterfall and took him to her home for family holidays with her husband. Last September, she helped get him into an apartment near Catholic University, where, at 58, he finally has his own bedroom.
The Washington Post wrote about their special friendship in February. Since then, the two have been recognized frequently on the streets and in stores; some readers contacted Tarlow to arrange new outings for Butt or to help pay for his care.
Last month, a U.S. Park Police officer who patrols the Mall on horseback arranged for Butt and Tarlow to go to the top of the Washington Monument. "It was very exciting; we felt very important. . . . There was a special viewfinder for people in wheelchairs, so Roger could see," Tarlow recalled. "He really enjoyed it."
Butt is spending two weeks in Philadelphia at Temple University's Augmentative Communication and Empowerment Supports Program. It has helped more than 100 adults with significant speech and physical disabilities learn to communicate using computer technology.
"He's meeting other people with cerebral palsy, and his communication device is being reprogrammed to better meet his needs," Tarlow said. "He told me he went to a yoga class and was able to move his hands in ways he didn't know he could."
He has been accompanied in Philadelphia by Angel Lewis, one of his main care attendants, and Sheila Tracy of Reclaiming Community Membership of Washington (RCM), a contractor that provides his assisted residential care in the District.
The program costs about $5,000, Tarlow said. RCM and the city's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration provided most of the money. A woman from Rockville who previously sent money to Tarlow after reading the article contributed an additional $750 to help pay for the program.
Butt raised some money, too, by selling T-shirts featuring pictures of his turtle, Sherman.
Tarlow said Butt's circle of friends "continues to firm up." He recently got a roommate, Matthew, for his apartment's second bedroom, and he serves as a consumer representative on RCM's human rights committee. She still is trying to find him a part-time minimum-wage job or work as a volunteer.
Butt has enjoyed being away at school.
"I introduced myself today using my device. In front of everyone," he told Tarlow in another e-mail. "Everyone clapped! I was really happy and proud of myself. . . . I miss you, but I am having a good time."