If you were to visit the L'Arche community in Iron Mines, Cape Breton, there's a good chance something like this would happen: Shortly after your arrival, a lanky red-headed man with awkward posture and distorted speech would maneuver his way to your side, peer down at your shoes, and point.
"Shoooooes" he would confide, leaning in close, a sudden grin lighting his face with spasms of delight.
Trevor is keen on footwear: Shoes are good, boots are better, spike heels are the pièce de résistance. Other people may quietly harbour such feelings, but Trevor makes no bones about them. Trevor. Likes. Shoes.
L'Arche was founded by the Catholic humanitarian philosopher Jean Vanier. It's an international federation of communities where "men and women with developmental disabilities, and those who choose to share life with them, live and work together." That's the official tag line, but in my experience, it doesn't quite capture the heart of the outfit.
My daughter-in-law, Jenn Power, is the community leader at l'Arche Cape Breton, and my son also works there, so I've had a lot of exposure to its 25 "core members," and the "assistants" who provide them with an often intense level of personal care. To me, what sets l'Arche apart is the community's knack for treating everyone according to what they can do, not what they can't. Staff do this for core members, of course, but also for each other, and for you and me when we visit.
My generation grew up regarding people with intellectual disabilities as totally defined by that difference. L'Arche turns this dynamic on its head, with revolutionary impact on the lives of its core members--and everyone who comes into contact with them. Open yourself to that notion, and you soon discover a breathtaking truth: that we are all more alike than different.
In this video, six men and women from l'Arche Cape Breton's drama group offer a glimpse of their surprising interior lives:
One final word about Trevor (who, I'm assured, will be delighted to see his image featured here in the company of smart shoes).
Two years ago, a group of L'Arche Cape Breton assistants and core members, including Trevor, took a vacation trip to New York City--a 1,000-mile drive in the community's wheel chair bus. While strolling through SoHo one afternoon, they happened upon a shoe store. This was the result:
[Photo of l'Arche Cape Breton core member David Gunn (top, leaping) by Amil Zavo. Photos of Trevor by Maxim Stykow. Used with permission.]
Parker Donham, a writer and consultant who lives on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, blogs at Contrarian.ca.
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James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.