BRATTLEBORO — The Inclusion Center has undergone a post-pandemic reorganization to online presentations with new programming, and the nonprofit has seen some interesting results.
The empowerment network for adults with disabilities or health conditions formerly met in person at St. Michael's Episcopal Church twice a week, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, things changed.
Many participants learned how to use the website Meetup, says Julie Tamler, a group member and sometime facilitator, while others weren't comfortable meeting online.
In the past, the group included “a lot of folks with developmental disabilities,” says Tamler, but now that meetings have been virtual for the past two years, most of those people aren't attending.
However, others are.
“Now we have people with adult-onset illness attending,” she says. “People with cancer, severe arthritis, and other debilitating medical issues. They've had long careers, and then illness came and changed their lives.”
Being online means that anyone anywhere can be part of the group.
“Now we have people from all over, which is fascinating,” says Tamler. “We have regulars from from England, France, and sometimes folks from South America and Asia. It's fascinating, learning about their worlds and disabilities and medical situations in their countries.”
Participation is still free, and all are welcome.
What they're about
The Inclusion Center began in 2012 with parents of adult children getting together to form a program that would be inclusive of people with any disability or health issue, age, or financial situation. The Center opened in 2013 with 30 participants turning out the first day.
At that time, participants were interested in dance, art, games, and connecting, so those were the programs offered. When new people with different interests and skills arrive, the program shifted focus.
Participants filmed public service announcements that were picked up by Brattleboro Community Television. One video, “Wheelchair Accessibility in Downtown Brattleboro,” received a first-place award in 2020 from the Alliance for Community Media Northeast Region.
Some became interested in advocacy and activism and met with town officials, joined the local Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) committee, and helped create change in a number of ways.
When a professional artist with disabilities joined, the group created a traveling exhibit of papier-mâché “disabled animals,” each with its own printed story about their disabilities. Participants also painted a mural for the wheelchair entrance to a theater in a local historic hotel.
One thing that hasn't changed over time is the participants' commitment to caring about and having patience with one another and welcoming everyone to enjoy the social, recreational and educational opportunities offered.
Anyone who would like to can step forward to lead an activity or program.
“Our degrees don't really matter,” Tamler says. “What matters is if a person has an interest in leading a group, we can work with them. Whatever role they want, they can take. We are not about being led by a professional. It really is about us being led by us and following our interests and needs.”
Friendships develop as the group shares their life experiences while respecting the views of others.
“We all work together and sort out how to make the activity accessible,” says Tamler. “A number of people have difficulty speaking, so we just slow everything down and online, they can type.”
“When you have a disability, it gets harder and harder to leave home, so being online has opened the world for so many of us,” Tamler says.
“Most of our people really don't get out much at all, and now they have all these connections and friendships and we get to share opinions and laugh when we play games,” she adds. “It's been a life changer for some people. It's really wonderful. It feels good - no matter what we're doing.”
At the Inclusion Center, Tamler says participants choose all the topics and facilitate the programs they wish to present. For the fall, here are some of things group members will be doing,
• Monday, 6 p.m.: Virtual beginners' yoga.
• Tuesday, 10 a.m.: Politics and what's in the news. On the first Tuesday of each month, the discussion will take place in the form of a debate. Tamler notes these weekly conversations include folks with varied viewpoints. “They're stimulating, and we get to learn from people who see things very differently,” she says.
When the group met in person, members invited town officials and others to speak with them, “to learn from them and have them learn from us,” Tamler says.
• Tuesday, 11 a.m.: Conversation Cafe: The Conversation Cafe has now evolved to conversations about specific topics “from abortion to our favorite recipes from Grandma” and now includes a debate monthly on topics such as “dogs versus cats, or gun rights,” Tamler says.
• Thursday, 11 a.m.: virtual chair yoga.
• Friday, 10 a.m.: A support group takes up topics related to disability and health, from relationship changes to exercise and how to handle pain.
• Friday, 11 a.m.: “Games with Meg.”
• On the second Saturday of each month at 7 p.m., the center features “Presentations with Matt,” about “things you don't usually see on tours about ancient civilizations,” according to Tamler, including pyramids, monolithic structures, mummies, Easter Island, and Egypt.
Also being planned, said Tamler, are in-person open microphone events, a developing intuition program, and tours streamed via heygo.com.