With one hand poised on the keyboard, Matthew Meno reached back to adjust the knobs on his recording equipment before unleashing a “1,2,3,4!” The room flooded with sound as the band hit the opening chords of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” while an instructor in the back of the room bopped along.
The band, dubbed the Early Birds, are part of Southside Unlimited, a nonprofit arts group that gets state and federal funding to provide daytime services for adults with physical and developmental disabilities. They gather twice weekly at the E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts, a midtown hub more often called the CLARA.
Southside is expanding programs that promote interaction between participants and the public, and build independent living and work skills. It’s a model that could become more common in California.
Some day centers for disabled adults have garnered criticism in recent years for keeping participants isolated, rather than helping them build life skills or find gainful employment.
“In some ways it can be looked at as an adult camp ... intended to give people somewhere to go, and to keep them safe,” said Olivia Raynor, a psychologist and disability policy expert at UCLA. “They were not envisioned as a place to support or facilitate community integration, but rather perpetuated a form of institutionalization.”
But by March 2022, all California programs that contract with the state to provide services to people with disabilities will need to become more integrated with the public and give participants more choices about their schedules and activities. The new requirement could propel a broader California push to expand employment and educational opportunities for this population.
Southside is embracing the shift. This February they began inviting members of the public into their three art studios — in South Sacramento, Arden-Arcade and Auburn — as well as the music recording studio where the Early Birds practice.
Program director Adrienne Levoy says more interaction with the community helps disabled adults with social development, and educates the general public about this population.
“We’re going to get in a spot that has foot traffic, and be able to have other people coming past the studio and see what the artists are doing,” she said. “We’re seeing the public awareness of their capabilities change.”
Many Southside participants enjoy art as a form of expression and recreation, and some strive to earn a living from their crafts. Participants’ paintings, ceramics and jewelry are for sale at a workspace-turned-storefront in the Country Club Plaza mall in Arden-Arcade, and the Early Birds have played five paid performances this year.
“They make business cards, they work on all these different aspects that any artist works on, like getting their art into craft fairs or putting it online,” Levoy said. “And the skills they gain while doing that help them in other aspects of their life, in knowing how to use social media and making and keeping personal and professional relationships.”
Meno, the band’s legally blind lead keyboardist, said Southside has boosted his confidence, and his budding musical career.
“I believe we’ve gotten stronger, musically,” he said. “I’ve gone on gigs, and we’ve just rocked them out.”
Jemel Williams, the band’s bass keyboardist, has Turner syndrome and is working her way toward living independently. She said being in the Early Birds has made that seem more achievable.
“They helped me become independent in making my own art, and making my own decisions about what I want to do,” she said. “Because before I wasn’t really making my own decisions.”
Conversations about improving opportunities for disabled adults have come to the forefront in California, especially as a large wave of children diagnosed with autism in the 1990s reaches adulthood and looks for jobs.
Less than 14 percent of people with a developmental disability — and about 34 percent of people with any disability — are employed in California. That's compared to nearly 76 percent of the general population, according to 2015 data from the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities.
And many of those workers are in “sheltered employment” in which the individual works alone or only with other disabled people. Many advocates are pushing employers to consider this population for more competitive, higher-paying jobs that suit their desires and skill sets.
Raynor, of UCLA, says the new rules are a step in that direction. But they could be tough for day programs that were set up to be isolated, and some may end up closing their doors rather than comply.
She says art programs might have an easier time adapting. She knows of several California organizations “trying to transform what were historically isolated arts centers to ways of authentically engaging with the arts community at large.”
Southside is encouraging members of the general public to engage with the organization by popping into the art galleries, renting craft supplies or using the recording studios. Participants may be teaching classes to the public in the future.