A few weeks ago we joined a festival at Inwood House, a special place in Silver Spring for people with a variety of physical and/or mental disabilities. Built in the late 1970s with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Inwood House is managed and operated by Montgomery County's Centers for the Handicapped, Inc. It looks like almost any other mid-rise apartment or condominium building in an area of Montogomery County. But Inwood House is different. It is an independent living center for 170 people and, in some cases, their families, who, despite a variety of serious handicapping conditions, are actively engaged in the pursuit of happiness.
What is most different about Inwood House is what is happening to the lives of the people who call it home. They come there from institutions or living situations where they may have been totally dependent on family members; now they are discovering how to live as more self-sufficient individuals in a group setting.
Under the guidance of recreation department staff members Billie Wilson and Gina Hambrecht, the residents pursue various jobs or projects with exceptional energy and enthusiasm. There are wheelchair aerobic exercises, weekend and vacation trips, parties and festivals to celebrate personal and professional achievements -- all aimed at making residents more confident of their ability to make choices in the pressure of everyday living.
Another important element is recognition of residents' accomplishments -- in art, literature and other disciplines. Lionel Lewis, Inwood's "resident poet," summed it up: "Part of me is a raging storm,
But the other is happy as a sun.
I'm a paint brush doing art,
I want to be remembered
By what I gave when
I am gone and in the grave."
Lewis also has become an accomplished weaver, and has won first prizes at both the county fair and the recreation department's annual show for disabled artists.
Then there is Richard Harding, who has become Inwood's official movie theater "manager." His once-a-week trips to the library to borrow films and his taking complete charge of the movie night program have given him a new sense of self-identity. He also is becoming a talented woodworker.
As one volunteer said, "Usually I cry inwardly when I deal with disabled people; when I leave Inwood House, my heart soars and I feel energized."
"Deinstitutionalization" is a very long word. But perhaps it is fitting because the process itself can be long and often endless, particularly if it occurs without adequate public support. Inwood House is an example of how the process can work successfully.