On a dreary Friday afternoon, 13 students from the Carter School in Boston found themselves in an unlikely spot — Club Café, a nightclub and restaurant in the Back Bay, surrounded by bass-thumping music and flashing purple strobe lights.
One of the students clapped his hands and yelled, rocking back and forth in his wheelchair when he heard the first notes of “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Another, also in a wheelchair, stared quietly at the swirling lights, her lips parted and eyes opened wide.
This event is an annual dance for the young people who attend the Carter School, a public school that serves severely mentally and physically disabled students. The dance, meant to simulate a nightclub experience, is one of the only times the students are able to go out together into the city.
“Our students deserve it. They deserve to be young adults, to get out of the building, to have experiences, to be special,” said Mark O’Connor, principal at the Carter School. “Whether they end up loving it or extremely disliking it, they deserve to have these experiences.”
Twenty-five students between the ages of 13 and 21 attend the school, although only 13 were in attendance Friday. There are five classrooms, each with five students, one teacher, and two teaching assistants. This dance is one of the few times the whole school has a venue large enough to come together in.
Nearly all the students use wheelchairs. None of them communicates in typical ways. Some point to pictures to signal positive or negative emotions, others use eye-gaze technology on a screen to spell out certain words. Despite their differences, their teachers note, they all love music.
“They work with the staff to pick music they like with nice, grounding beats to keep them entertained and engaged,” said Charlay Yates, the school’s music therapist. “Music and beats and rhythm are grounding and are helpful to kind of help you be aware of your surroundings.”
While partying in a nightclub might seem far from academic, the dance is an educational opportunity for students to learn to communicate if they like or dislike something, according to O’Connor.
“Not every student in the normal high school wants to go to a nightclub, and the same here. Not everyone at the Carter does. Some are looking for a way out of it,” O’Connor laughed. “But we want to give them the experience of a variety of opportunities in the community. We also go hiking and kayaking.”
The Carter School and Club Café have been putting this event on for eight years. It began with an idea from teacher Kim Kulasekaran, who noticed a few of her students had a passion for music and dancing. One student got up and ran around the room when Michael Jackson came on. Another moved back and forth so intensely when he heard a good song that his wheelchair rocked.
Kulasekaran reached out to Club Café, and the owners immediately said yes, she recalled. Not only does the club provide free space for the event, but it buys glow sticks and stuffed animals for the students to throw around.
Although many of the students cannot eat solid food, Club Café handles all the refreshments as well, catering the event with french fries, beer-battered chicken, quesadillas, and non-alcoholic cocktails. The event doesn’t cost the school a cent.
Jim Morgrage, co-owner of Club Café, brings his two golden retrievers in to welcome the students and make them feel more comfortable.
However, it’s almost never this simple for the group of students to go anywhere outside the school.
“It’s something that demonstrates the difficulties our students have in accessing the community as a whole,” O’Connor said. “We actually have to bring portable wheelchair ramps to get in the building. Club Café helps us and opens side doors and gets us into the building. When we think about our students and families doing this on their own, physical access in our city and it being old is a huge obstacle.”
While many locations are wheelchair accessible, they are not built to support groups. If the school wants to take the 25 students somewhere on the train, it can take up to an hour to just get them down the elevator and onto the platform.
“Every real outing we go on, it’s ‘Is the elevator working at the train stop?’ or ‘Is the building accessible?’ ” Kulasekaran said. “Sometimes the intentions are good, but we get halfway there or all the way there, and we can’t.”