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'People Need Human Contact': Brattleboro Disabilities Group Helps Members Connect During COVID

A smiling woman in a red shirt outside in the snow
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Alauna Boyer stands in front of her home in Dummerston, where her internet connection does not allow her to connect with Inclusion Center meetings. Boyer can attend online meetings from her mother's house nearby.

A group of families in the Brattleboro area opened the Inclusion Center about seven years ago. Before the pandemic, it was a place where adults with disabilities met to play games, talk, and make connections with other people in the area.

Now the Inclusion Center is holding activities online, and while that works for some, others say it's no substitute for meeting in person.
Alauna Boyer, 28, started going to the Inclusion Center in Brattleboro soon after they opened their doors in 2013.

“I am on the autism spectrum, but I’m on the high-functioning end of autism," she said. "I have ADHD and PDD-NOS."

Boyer lives out in Dummerston, and she said before the pandemic, the Inclusion Center was a place where she could see friends and be herself, and not have to feel like her disability was something she had to explain to people.

“I enjoyed going there, because it was nice to see people who are like me, and not like me,” Boyer said. “I’m able to, like, connect with them on levels that might not happen with other people in my life, because some people in my life don’t really understand my disability, or understand why I have to do things that I do, you know?”

Boyer doesn’t have great internet service where she lives, but when she goes to her mom’s house, she can take part in the Inclusion Center’s Zoom meetings, which have been happening three times a week.

It’s offered a small glimmer of hope, she says, in what’s otherwise been a challenging time navigating the pandemic.

“It’s been pretty rough. I mean, I’ve been home a lot, and the Zoom meetings themselves are very helpful,” she said. “The downside is, like you see them, and afterwards you might feel like crying, because you can’t actually be with them, type of thing.”
 

"[T]he Zoom meetings themselves are very helpful. The downside is, like you see them, and afterwards you might feel like crying because you can't actually be with them." — Alauna Boyer, Dummerston

About 20% of the people in Vermont have a disability, according to Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living.

Launderville says that while organizations like hers have been reaching out, and moving some services online during the pandemic, she does not know of another locally-run group that is trying to connect with people with disabilities during the pandemic.

“They're a unique group, because they come together and provide peer support to one another,” Launderville said. “And it's really grassroots, and I do support anything that brings people with disabilities together so that they can socialize, and kind of also talk about real experiences that folks are dealing with.”

When the pandemic first hit in the spring, Inclusion Center founder Julie Tamler said the group tried meeting a few times outside. But as it became clear how serious a health risk the coronavirus was, especially for people with health issues connected to their disability, Tamler says they moved over to the virtual meetings.

Though Tamler says more than half of the group can’t really take part in the Zoom meetings, because it’s too hard for some to sit in front of the screen and control the online communication tools.

“You know being online doesn’t work for people who are hearing impaired, it’s too confusing," Tamler said. "For some people with visual stuff, it’s confusing, and then people with developmental disabilities. I think that people need human contact, and it’s just too difficult, I think, for a lot of people."

More from Vermont Edition: COVID-19 Raises Health Concerns For Vermonters With Disabilities, Older People

Online meetings have not worked for Kachina Lee, a 32-year-old woman with a developmental disability, her mother Barbara Lee said.

“She’s not totally non-verbal, but it’s not her strength, talking,” Barbara said. “But she’s a great listener, and she’s got a great sense of humor.”

Kachina and Barbara have been coming to the Inclusion Center for more than three years, and Barbara said her daughter, who used to love taking part in the physical activities, can’t really do the online meetings.

“She really truly needs the physical, in-person presence of another person to really feel that communication back and forth,” Barbara said. “I mean, the screen can remind her of something, but it’s in no way — in no way — a substitute for her, and the need to have that one-on-one, or one-and-small-group contact, where you’re really seeing all the non-verbal body language. You know not just our face, but whatever else is going on in someone else’s realm.”

"... it wasn’t until I got here that I really realized that I miss talking to people, I miss having conversations, I miss just having just fun with people, you know?"— Pat Dente, Dummerston

Still for some, the move to online virtual meetings has been a lifeline during the pandemic.

Pat Dente lives in Dummerston, and he discovered the Inclusion Center meetings a few months ago. He’s never even taken part in the pre-pandemic in-person meetings.

Dente said his ALS is getting worse, and he spends most of his time in a wheelchair. Even without the pandemic going on, Dente said it would be hard to get into Brattleboro in winter to meet.

But as the disease progresses, and the pandemic wears on, Dente says the Inclusion Center meetings have become the highlights of his week.

“As you progress downward, you pull more into your little shell, your thoughts are all your own, and you get in your own little world,” he said. “And it wasn’t until I got here that I really realized that I miss talking to people, I miss having conversations, I miss just having just fun with people, you know?”

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The Inclusion Center, which is run by all volunteers, has done its best to adapt it meetings to an online platform.

They’ve kept their improv classes, though there’s not as much physical movement involved, and a lot of the time is given over to conversation, which stretches from the personal to topics like politics and religion.

Cory Costo used to look forward to going down to the center from his home in Brattleboro, back when we all could meet and gather. He says he’s eager to be on the other side of the pandemic, but for now, the Zoom meetings are providing a way to connect with people.

“It’s as good as this might get right now,” Costo said. “The in-person was different.  You used to be able to meet people face to face, but, I guess that’s the same way in any organization right now.”

"It's as good as this might get right now. The in-person was different. You used to be able to meet people face to face, but, I guess that's the same way in any organization right now." — Cory Costo, Brattleboro

Since moving over to the Zoom platform, the Inclusion Center has been able to connect with someone in Burlington, and a second person from New York who moved out of the area. And in a way, moving online has both proven the importance of the work the group is doing, while also allowing it to grow in new ways.

And when the pandemic is over, the Inclusion Center will likely continue holding some meetings online to allow people who have trouble getting out of the house a chance to meet online with their friends.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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