Studio 13 welcomes individuals with mental disabilities


Rachel Jessen/The Daily Iowan
Systems Unlimited clients and workers dance and socialize at Studio 13 on Feb. 22. The bar has hosted the weekly dance party for three years; for $3, attendees are offered pizza and unlimited soda.
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Iowa City’s “alternative” bar opens its doors weekly to a section of the community often left on the fringe: the mentally challenged.

Every Monday night, Studio 13, 13 S. Linn St., invites clients and workers from Systems Unlimited Inc., a company offering assistance to individuals with disabilities, for two hours of booze-free fun.

For $3, attendees get pizza and unlimited soda. And the bar does not profit from the service.

At least, not financially.

“This is a gay club, and our whole staff likes to come here and hang out with [Systems Unlimited’s clients],” said Jared Breakenridge, a bar employee. “I think they, too, know what it’s like to be outsiders or not understood.”

Breakenridge began working the Monday night parties as a DJ. He arrived with a supply of music different from what he would usually play: Dolly Parton, the Beach Boys, and Elvis. He looked for older classics to serve the new crowd, but he discovered that typical dance-club hits brought in the most requests.

“One of the girls requested ‘Single Ladies,’ and when I play stuff like that, it just makes them feel like everyone else,” Breakenridge said. “They feel like they’re doing stuff that everyone does on a Friday and Saturday, and it’s pretty cool that they get to feel like that.”

Buddy Orhd, a 40-year-old, frequents the dance parties to hear his favorite hits by Journey.

“I like the dance floor and the music,” he said, swaying to “Super Freak” and sipping a soda. “And I like the people. They’ve all become my friends.”

For three years, individuals with disabilities have marked their calendars to dance and mingle with new friends at the club.

“Everyone knows everyone’s names,” said bar employee Patrick West. “It’s really personal, and everyone is friends.”

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Employees look forward to seeing favorites show up at the door: an older woman in her Elvis-bedazzled jacket and neon microphone, a man studying his dance moves in the mirror, and an upbeat couple twirling each other beneath a disco ball.

At the door, cover charges are not the only exchanges made between workers and guests.

Bartenders are greeted with hugs and handshakes. People are not hurried through the line — rather, they are encouraged to converse. Employees grin and accept invitations to dance.

Some Systems Unlimited employees said they were initially surprised by the pairing of people at these downtown parties. But after a onetime visit, they said, they wondered why they had ever questioned it.

“Some people might not think a bar would be so open and welcoming, but this has really turned out to be such a positive environment,” said UI student Lucket Kiche, who volunteers at the parties.

“The basic thing to remember is that people with intellectual disabilities and those without are a lot more alike than they are different,” said Bill Reagan, the president and CEO of the Arc of Southeast Iowa, a group that specializes in the advocacy of individuals with disabilities.

And though they may seem frequently absent from downtown dance clubs, he said, roughly 4,000 Johnson County residents live with intellectual disabilities.

“For people with or without intellectual disabilities, socialization is a very important part of life,” Reagan said. “Without that, we become isolated, we become segregated, and the whole idea is that we want to knock down those barriers to independence and full inclusion.”

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