Parents, Towson Y board find common ground on fate of Discovery program

Families of local residents with disabilities and Y of Central Maryland officials seem to have found common ground after a turbulent December that saw a long standing program facing its demise with little warning to the families.

The Discovery program, a decades-old program for persons living with disabilities that was unique to the Towson Family Center Y, was effectively slated to end this month, according to a letter send out to parents from the Y.

Key aspects of the program, however, have been reinstated after parents cried foul.

"My sense is that the parents who have adults in the program want to be sure that the Y is there for them, and I think we've gotten that assurance," said Mary Scott, a West Towson resident whose 32-year-old daughter, Annie, has spent 18 years in Discovery.

"John Holman (community liaison for the Towson Y Board of Directors) called me and said the Y will be there for all members of the community," Scott said. "I think what they did was create a public relations mess that has enlightened them to a lot of issues, and they seem to be committed to make good on their promises."

That promise includes the reinstatement of a Saturday social program that allows special needs participants to spend time with their friends.

Families and participants learned of the changes in a letter dated Dec. 5, in which Y District Center Director Beverly Landis said that effective Dec. 31, Discovery members would be invited to participate in all activities alongside the rest of the Y community — instead of having separate programs.

Sara Milstein, chief marketing officer of the Y of Central Maryland, said that decision was made after the Y "sat back and assessed" the Discovery program, and decided that it was not in line with the organization's mission of community building.

"Community building is a really important part of what we do, and the idea of people being isolated and separated from the rest of the population really runs contrary to the notion of community," Milstein said.

"What we're saying now is that we welcome and invite all of our members to participate in all of our activities to the extent that they want to," she said, "and we hope that what will happen, as a result, is that it will be a richer experience for everybody."

But many parents of Discovery participants greeted the news with a mixture of shock and outrage, and said they had no say in the decision. Several didn't see a need for it, given that their children were already well-integrated in the community.

Robert Davison, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Arc of Baltimore, has a son, Michael, who has been going to the Discovery program for almost 35 years. He said Michael spends "95 percent of his time" integrated in the community.

"The only time he is in a separate program is Discovery and a special needs bowling group … and he himself chose to do that because these people are his friends," Davison said.

"We took the position that we didn't believe the Y wouldn't tell a group of males that they couldn't get together because they're males. They wouldn't tell a group of bridge players that they can't get together because they all like bridge. We felt that it was discriminatory to tell a group of disabled people that they couldn't hang out together socially because they share a disability," he said.

Other parents were concerned about the level of involvement Discovery participants could have in some Y activities.

"How is the guy in the wheelchair going to participate in a yoga class?" asked Nancy Simms, whose 30-year-old son, Craig, has been a Y and Discovery member since he was 8. "How is that guy going to play basketball with the rest of the group when his (cerebral palsy) is so severe that he has seizures every day?"

Shortly after the letter was sent, a group of concerned parents met with Landis to air their grievances, and the decision was ultimately made to reinstate the Saturday social program — which includes Wii dancing, music, swimming, crafts and kickball.

But the weekday program, which met Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, will become less formal gatherings. As Y members, Discovery participants will be welcome at the Y for all activities and can plan their visits together, but no separate activities will be held.

Mainstream motivation

While the proposal to change the Discovery program initially upset parents, ARC of Baltimore Executive Director Stephen Morgan said the decision is actually in line with his organization's philosophy to "try as much as possible to support people in the different programs in ways to get them close to the community, as much as possible."

"My guess is that what the Y was trying to achieve … was to get those same participants engaged in the Y activities in a more included way, a more side-by-side fashion with the other Y members," Morgan said.

That stance on persons with disabilities is grounded in a quest for equality and fair treatment that Discovery parents are all too familiar with.

But now that both sides have talked the issue out — and reached a compromise — all involved say they hope to move forward and form a program that works for the Discovery participants.

"I think all of us at the Y and the parents on both sides are sorry and sad for any miscommunication either of us had," Holman said. "I can especially say that's true for the Y."

"We're in a spot where the Y is being responsive," said Scott.

"What happens in the next few weeks will be very illuminating, but they cannot have any missteps," she said. "We're committed to working with them."

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