Programs make independent living possible

By MATT PARSONS/Montana State News

Ty Sherwood and Nick Fordyce seem like any other twenty-something roommates.  The only difference is that in their Bozeman bachelor pad there’s no beer in the fridge and the toilets seats are down.

Despite disabilities, Ty Sherwood and Nick Fordyce are able to live independently.
Despite disabilities, Ty Sherwood and Nick Fordyce are able to live independently.

And on the back side of their front door is a note that reads “Is it after 9 p.m? If it is…STAY INSIDE!” I wonder what this means. But I decide not to ask, not yet at least. I had just arrived.

Inside their three-bedroom, two-bath duplex, Sherwood and Fordyce lounge around in t-shirts and basketball shorts. Fordyce has a Hewlett Packard computer in his lap and Sherwood is busy cleaning up the kitchen where French toast is frying in a skillet.

Fordyce shows me what he’s been working on.

“It’s a menu for the coming week,” says Fordyce. “Ty and I take turns cooking dinner every other week.” This week was Fordyce’s. His menu looks pretty appetizing – spaghetti, pork chops, a variety of vegetables. Thursday night just says “leftovers.” Sundays are reserved for dinner with their parents.

At this point you’re probably wondering what is different about these two young men. They plan out their menus a week in advance? They clean the kitchen? They put the toilet seats down? That’s just not normal, certainly not for a 20-year-old male. Well, you would be right.

In fact, it’s quite extraordinary, especially considering that Sherwood and Fordyce have mental disabilities that prevent them from doing some of the things that many of us take for granted. 

Sherwood and Fordyce graduated from Bozeman High School in 2010 and 2011, respectively. They’ve been living together and away from their families for over a year now. When asked how they like being roommates, Sherwood says “good.” Fordyce quickly quips “terrible.”

Sherwood grabs Fordyce around the waist and presses his head into Fordyce’s shoulder. Fordyce winces and howls as he pushes Sherwood away from him. They laugh and fist bump each other while reciting some inside joke I haven’t been let in on.

I’m practically in stitches watching this act unfold in front of me. It’s hard to believe they can keep up this comedy act from sun up to sun down. Perhaps some of it is just for my benefit.

Regardless, I see little difference in how the two of them interact in comparison with how I used to (and sometimes still do) interact with my male friends. I remember my first year away from home. I wasn’t nearly as responsible as Sherwood and Fordyce seem to be.

Not all people with disabilities are able to live independently. Sherwood’s and Fordyce’s is a success story that started with supportive families and continued in Bozeman’s Public School system.

Their education included learning life and vocational skills, with an emphasis on practical learning. Before Sherwood and Fordyce ever struck out on their own, they had practiced how to cook, how to choose the right food. They both worked jobs for a certain part of the day throughout their final years at Bozeman High.

“I have three jobs now,” Sherwood says proudly, “McKenzie River, Reach and Eagle Mount.” Fordyce tells me he works part time at Safeway. “Horse poop,” Sherwood breaks in. “Sometimes I shovel horse poop at Eagle Mount.”

“Ew, gross!” they say in unison. The laughter quickly erupts again as they wrestle with each other.

Fordyce reminds me of a gentle giant. He towers above Sherwood, but his sometimes pensive look quickly gives way to wide smiles when he notices me watching him. Fordyce wears wire-rimmed glasses, a grey Denver Broncos t-shirt, black basketball shorts and white athletic socks. His hair is a short sandy brown.

By all accounts he looks like he should be a lineman on a football team, but watching him dance around his home to country music makes me wonder if he would rather let the other team score a touchdown than have to tackle someone.

Sherwood has broad shoulders, dark skin and black hair that stands on end. Errant whiskers spot his upper lip and chin. He wears a black basketball tournament t-shirt, the kind with sponsor logos all over the back, a pair of green cargo shorts and bare feet.

Their house is tidy, a consequence, I quickly surmise, has more to do with Fordyce than Sherwood.

“Ty, can you please put your coffee cup in the dishwasher?” Fordyce asks his roommate. “Thank you.”

I also gather that even Fordyce and Sherwood need help from their parents and some community agencies every once in a while.

But many people with disabilities need someone to assist with everyday needs, such as cooking or personal care. This is where one of the many support groups in Bozeman comes in.

AWARE is a statewide organization that provides support services, including vocational and living assistance, for a wide range of people with disabilities. AWARE operates a group home in Bozeman called the Candlelight Home for people with autism.

“Candlelight serves four youth from across the state who are challenged by developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders,” said Jim Tracy, public affairs officer at AWARE. The staff at Candlelight are “trained in Applied Behavioral Analysis,” said Tracy. ABA is an intensive program designed to identify and reinforce good behaviors, giving people with autism the skills they need to have more successful interactions with other people.

Programs like the Candlelight Home are great, but services like this have a long waiting list.

“The Developmental Disabilities Program has many children waiting for services, and some of them are requiring out of home placements,” said Jeff Sturm, former Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Developmental Disabilities Program director. Group homes represent a cost-effective way to provide people with disabilities the support they need.

Reach, the Bozeman-based community agency where Sherwood works, not only provides supported work for people with disabilities, but also provides a wide range of living support services, from group homes to minimal assistance services that Sherwood and Fordyce may need.

However, most of these services are restricted to the amount of funding state and non-profit organizations can provide. The result is a huge shortfall in the amount of services available to people with disabilities.

Sherwood and Fordyce are lucky. They qualify for some of these services and have a tremendous local support system from family and friends.

Back at their home, Sherwood and Fordyce are reading their friends’ posts on Facebook. Sherwood cranks a song he finds on Spotify, a free online digital music service. Fordyce sings out loud. They seem to be getting along just fine on their own. But everyone needs a little help every once in a while.

– Edited by Levi Worts and Autumn Toennis

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