Rachel Kaplan is a farmer. Although she has only rudimentary speech and is considered to be on the autism spectrum, the 33-year-old has a support team who help her plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell the crops grown on a small farm in Accord. Katrina Klinge of Olivebridge is one of the support staff who take turns accompanying Rachel through her day, helping her function in a world that is not accustomed to interacting with people who have her particular range of abilities.
Rachel and her housemate, Sheila Dolkhani, are participants in self-direction, a growing trend in care for people with developmental disabilities. In most cases, explained Rachel’s mother, Wendy Kaplan, when teens who receive services for disabilities graduate from high school, they either go straight into a group home or remain at their parents’ house, perhaps attending a “dayhab.” The state continues to fund services, as dictated by support professionals, and the clients are referred to as “consumers” of those services.
Self-direction takes the same funding and gives it to caretakers who allow the client to decide how to live her or his life and do whatever they can to help achieve that goal. In the past 12 years, the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities has embraced self-direction, enabling young people with autism to embark on careers. Some have become musicians, taught in schools for people with disabilities, trained and worked with therapy dogs.
Rachel was one of the state’s first clients to take advantage of self-direction after the success of a pilot program. Her mother, Wendy Kaplan, started a farming program for adults with disabilities in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Young people with autism and other diagnoses came to a state park with their parents or aides to grow vegetables, offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions to local residents.
“Rachel really enjoys farming,” says Wendy. “We think it’s very well-suited to people with developmental disabilities. It doesn’t depend on social cues that are needed to work in an office or restaurant. If Rachel needs to be alone, there’s a lot of space. If she wants to interact with others, there are always farm chores that need more than one person.” Inconvenient behaviors, such as repetitive movements and loud verbalizations, usually lessen when Rachel is doing what she wants to do, being mentally and physically engaged.
Wendy and her husband, Gary, a neurologist, decided to set up a residential situation for Rachel that would enable her to be independent while pursuing her passion for farming. Land was expensive on Long Island, so they searched upstate and found a 40-acre property with a house in Accord. Wendy and Gary commute upstate on weekends and are deeply involved in organizing their daughter’s care. Rachel and her aides are about to start their second full season at SustainAbility Farm. This year they are raising chickens, in addition to cultivating three acres of vegetables and selling them to restaurants, to a nearby food co-op, and to residents who subscribe to the CSA.
Katrina describes a trip into Stone Ridge to sell garlic scapes last year. “We go to a farm-to-table restaurant, and I introduce Rachel as a farmer down the road. I ask the chef if he would like to buy some garlic scapes. When we negotiate a price, and he gives us cash, Rachel is so pleased. She is being part of the adult economy, which many people like Rachel have been told they can’t do.” No longer merely a “consumer,” Rachel is a producer.
“We’re changing people’s concept of developmental disabilities,” says Wendy, “one heirloom tomato at a time. They’re tasting something amazing, and they know the farmer who grew it.”
Interactions with the public can be difficult, since it appears to most people that Rachel has mental deficiencies, but in fact, her comprehension is fine. While on Long Island, she took courses at Hofstra University and considered herself a religion major. Now, at SUNY New Paltz, she audits classes in geology and North American anthropology, with Katrina by her side. Rachel has difficulty reading, but she can spell, and she types on her iPad. Wendy shows me a message Rachel wrote to her: “want to talk about how all of the things that we do at the farm are waking up the parts of my life that were sleeping. asking me to try new things is helping me stand on my own…you are our support. thank you.”
Sheila, 23, returned to the house from a walk with one her aides, Erica Schumacher of Kerhonkson. “I love Sheila,” says Erica. “She roller skates, swims, hikes, helps with chores, does some farming. She loves to sit in cafés, and she loves art and classical music. All the direct support staff here are tremendous. We help Sheila and Rachel grow, extend their range of motion and experience, and move past their perceived limits.”
Sheila doesn’t type, but Erica supports her hand as she taps out words on an alphabet chart, indicating, for instance, what she wants to do next — hike or read. “She has a great sense of humor. She laughs when I use an accent while I’m reading aloud to her. Sometimes she’ll say ‘Mommy’ just a moment before her mother calls on the phone. We help open their world, and they open our world to understanding.”
Erica is not specifically trained in caring for people on the autism spectrum but taught English in a high school for many years. Katrina, after earning a bachelors degree in sociology, was unable to get a job in human services, as she had hoped. Instead, she has found a satisfying role in her work with Rachel, which pays her a comfortable wage.
The Kaplans would like to make the Accord house available to other self-directed residents with developmental disabilities. But many parents and school personnel are unaware that self-direction exists as an option. Wendy is an organizer of Hudson Valley Self-Direction, disseminating information and connecting members of the local self-direction community. “It provides you with a choice,” she explains. “With a circle of support, you can plan out how you want to live your life.”
To learn more about self-direction, visit the Facebook page for Hudson Valley Self-Direction or go to the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities website at https://opwdd.ny.gov/selfdirection. For more information on SustainAbility Farm, to volunteer on the farm, or to subscribe to the CSA, see http://www.sustainabilityfarm.org/.