By the time the doors open 15 minutes early that Saturday night, dozens are lined up to get inside. Women wear wedges and bodysuits that hug their curves. Men sport collared shirts and their favorite sneakers. Some have caregivers guiding them; others need wheelchairs. Many wear the signature T-shirts stamped with the logo, Club 1111.
It’s the long-awaited evening when the League for People with Disabilities at 1111 E. Cold Spring Lane transforms into a glittering nightclub for adults with disabilities. The classrooms become dance floors with disc jockeys playing pounding club music. Merchandise, like sunglasses and blinking rings, is stacked up and ready to be sold, and volunteers wait in a makeshift spa to do fingernails and put on temporary tattoos. A lounge with dim lights is set up for chilling.
The only one of its kind in Maryland and possibly the country, Club 1111 is where hundreds come to dance and make friends. Some want to find love. All are drawn because of the sense of safety, the feeling that no one is judging them, that they can be like anyone else out for the night.
“It is one of my favorite places in the whole wide world,” says Stephen Jones, 29, one of 503 people who packed the club this night.
Much has happened in the past 30 years to try to give people with disabilitiesa life that looks the same as for anyone without special needs. People who would have at one time been institutionalized are living in group homes. Sheltered workshops are closing as people are moving into integrated workplaces that embrace what’s called the “neurodiversity” movement. And social opportunities are growing to include specific dating sites, cruises and proms.
But adults with disabilities, like Jones, yearn for more opportunities to socialize. Club 1111 is unique for how often it is held — once a month — and for how many people it draws. Local, state and national advocates are not aware of another event like it anywhere in the country.
“Whatever you come looking for, you can find it here,” says Janice Jackson, 59, of Northeast Baltimore, who uses a wheelchair after being paralyzed in 1984 when she was hit by a car. “We see a lot of relationships blossom. Some fail. Love is always in the air here at Club 1111.
“Everybody feels free here.”
Organizers said most clubgoers have intellectual and developmental disabilities, about a quarter use a wheelchair and roughly one in 10 have visual impairment.
A nurse and behavioral specialist are on duty to respond when emergencies arise, like a dancer getting dehydrated, or a clubgoer suffering a mental health crisis. Hallways and doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs. The flashing lights on the dance floor are programmed with the advice of a neurologist so they won’t trigger seizures. Sodas come in plastic cups with lids and flexible straws so they’re easy to drink and won’t be spilled.
Early in the night, Jessica Zuback, 23, of Woodbine starts out in the spa. She gets her nails painted pink to match the dress and eyeshadow she picked out. Then she heads to the dance floor with her mom, Kathy Zuback. They swing each other in circles, laughing and jumping in rhythm to a remix of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
The sound vibrates through the room — Take my hand, we'll make it I swear — and Jessica Zuback extends her hand, incorporating a cheer routine into her dance moves.
She has a rare chromosomal abnormality, and her mom says it has been hard for her to find places to socialize since she graduated from high school.
“When you see her dancing on the dance floor, it is pure joy,” Kathy Zuback says. Her daughter wanted to find more friends, a cherished thing that’s happened since they started coming a year and a half ago. Outside the club, she usually connects to her new friends over video chat. They often talk about her favorite topic: My Little Pony.
“This is very important to her, because she gets to express herself,” her mother says. “This place is amazing.”
Nearby in the lounge, a quiet place where “mocktails” are served, with fruit punch, Sprite, cherries and tiny paper umbrellas, Jones is watching an LL Cool J video, “I Need Love,” on an iPhone.
When I'm alone in my room, sometimes I stare at the wall … For the first time in my life, I see I need love.
Jones, who has a developmental disability, is mulling his life. “I’m looking for someone to treat me right,” he says. The lounge door opens to the courtyard, where people are smoking, pairing off and making calls.
At the edge of a dance floor, where walkers have been pushed to the side and caretakers observe from seats, Alex Gordon is finishing up barbecue chips. He likes to go to the club for a night out of the house, to listen to music and see people he knows.
Gordon, who is profoundly autistic, depends on his parents and caretakers at his Owings Mills group home to have social experiences, says his mother, Renee Gordon of Pikesville. Her son goes to lots of special outings, but building and keeping relationships takes coordination. Like many people with severe disabilities, she said, her son can’t pick up the phone and ask a friend to hang out. He didn’t make his first friend, his roommate Sam McDaniel, until he was age 21.
For his mom, who has seen her son struggle in the wider world, watching him at the club is powerful: “It always takes my breath away.”
Under the club lights, McDaniel, who has Down syndrome, is dancing with his girlfriend, Mary Shird. They bend their knees in and out for the butterfly and step side to side. They look like they could be on “Dancing with the Stars.”
They met at the club, when Shird said she noticed him.
“I was dancing real good,” she said, “and he dances real good.”
Shird, who has an intellectual disability, lives with her aunt, Roxie Moye, in Federal Hill. She and McDaniel meet up for dinner and trips to the movies, or visits to the ice cream shop, but their favorite date night is at the club.
Moye said Club 1111 is an ideal place for her niece to experience a night out, with built-in protections, such as taking pictures of everyone who shows up on the MobilityLink transit service, so they can make sure each gets a ride when it’s time to go home.
“When I first got there, I couldn’t stop crying,” Moye said. “I was so overjoyed.”
The club opened in January 2015. David Greenberg, the league’s president, said it was originally conceived as a fundraiser, to help pay for services the league offers.
Seeing the crowd that first night, he knew they’d hit on something special. The club grew quickly, with as many as 700 people packing in from all over the state. When enough sponsorships didn’t come through, though, the league changed plans and started charging $10 at the door to cover snacks, security, entertainment and cleanup.
Greenberg and other advocates said the ultimate goal is “full inclusion,” meaning people with disabilities should be integrated into all aspects of life. But there are issues like stigma and medical problems that can make that tough. None of that matters here.
“This is their club,” Greenberg said. “Here, they feel like people without a disability would feel.”
Providing a venue for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to date and make love connections is not without its complications.
Medical emergencies are common at the club, Greenberg said. At the April event, one man had a seizure and a woman had a mental health crisis. The league’s nurse treats people in a first aid station, and caregivers and volunteers who fill the space remind the partiers to rest.
Carol Orth, clinical supervisor for Adult Autism and Developmental Disorders Center at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said broaching the topic of intimate relationships for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities can be tricky. The discussion usually happens when a person is interested in a relationship or is exhibiting inappropriate sexual behavior.
“It is a very difficult thing because they are in bodies that, chronologically, want to and can be sexual, but do not necessarily have the capacity to understand intimacy,” Orth said. “It is a case-by-case basis.”
Because of the free admission for caregivers and league staff in place, Club 1111 feels safe. Family members may fear less exclusive social venues because their loved ones may be more at risk of being taken advantage of or even abused, said Shawn Ullman, who works at The Arc’s national office in Washington. The solution is showing how to recognize what a good relationship looks like or what an unsafe situation might feel like.
Cheyenne Whytsell, 24, who has mild cerebral palsy, attended the April dance with her mother, Wendy Williamson of Glen Burnie.
Escaping the dance floor when the “Macarena” comes on at 8:23 p.m., Whytsell and her friend Destiny Oakes, 24, of Morrell Park, walk into the game room. The friends, who spent the night glued to each other’s side, start shooting basketball. They blow off two guys that bluntly ask for their number. Whytsell and Oakes are here to dance and laugh with each other.
At about a quarter to 10, when the club is getting ready to shut down, the overhead lights blare on, breaking the spell. Twenty-nine people are still dancing to Beyoncé’s “Sorry.”
In the next minutes, volunteers rush to get patrons to the correct MobilityLink ride. Sharaya Wilson of Randallstown flops down into a chair at the entrance, her hair damp, her faced flushed, and blurts out her wish, that the club last until the sun comes up.
The last couple dancing, Kerron Godfrey, of Windsor Mill, and his longtime girlfriend, are kissing. His arm is around her neck.
Sorry, I ain’t sorry.
He takes out his camera and snaps a selfie with her. As the DJ starts to take down the speakers, the couple keeps dancing, holding on to each other, and the night, for a few more moments.
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.