Everybody with a seriously handicapped person in their life knows this fantasy. The fantasy is a place, somewhere the handicapped person will be able to live and be cared for, not as someone handicapped but as a participating member of the world, for as long as they survive.
It's a fantasy, but a compelling one.
In the fantasy, there are no run-down group homes on the edges of cities, out where the housing is cheap but not exactly uplifting, where there are always too many extension cords snaking across the floor.
Instead, in the fantasy, there are communities of people, preferably in the country or perhaps by the sea, living in gorgeous, architected houses - because (fantasy thinking goes) the handicapped have so few satisfactions, don't they deserve to live in a beautiful place as much as any of us?
Another thing about the fantasy is that there are no distinctions between the handicapped and the professional social workers who care for them, between the normal and the broken, no wall between Them and Us.
There are simply people who live together and help each other. The workers do the physical work, the handicapped do the work of the heart.
In the fantasy, these communities have a noble and respected history and last as long as they need to, without recurrent funding problems. Because even in the fantasy, everyone knows the handicapped never go away.
The strangest thing is, the fantasy almost exists. Forty-four years ago, in the village of Trosly-Breuil 70 kilometres northeast of Paris, as an alternative to the vast, stark institutions that were the order of the day, the community of L'Arche was founded by Canadian-born Jean Vanier, who turns 80 on Wednesday.
Its beginnings were humble - a derelict house Mr. Vanier bought for himself and two seriously handicapped men, one of whom couldn't speak. (A third man proved too severely disabled to live with them, and moved out within days.) There was no indoor plumbing, no running water and no operational plan beyond an intention to "live together, travel and have fun." A world view and a global movement nevertheless sprang from that simple commitment.
Today, L'Arche is 130 communities in 34 countries on six continents, and Jean Vanier is the world's most significant thinker on the subject of disability. But the original sign - the word "L'Arche" carved by hand into a piece of wood - still hangs in Trosly.
The central principles of L'Arche are unchanged as well: that the handicapped help the able-bodied more than the able-bodied ever help them, because the handicapped remind us of our greatest assets, our weakness and humanness.
History is tucked everywhere between the quiet villages of this region. The French armistice with Germany was signed in a nearby forest, as was Germany's less-honourable armistice with France, in 1940. A siding in the forest not far from here was one of the loading points for trains bound for concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
But there are heroes too. Jean Vanier still lives in a tiny, four-room house in Trosly, steps from the original foyer (the name L'Arche gives to its homes). Tall, white-haired and vigorous even in his 80th year, he still rises every morning at 6 and still sees visitors every day after breakfast. He still eats lunch and dinner with the residents of L'Arche, still greets them in the street as friends. It's often impossible to tell if they're handicapped or not. But Mr. Vanier still considers the handicapped to be "among the most persecuted people on earth."
Last April, I visited Jean Vanier in his house in Trosly. We spoke on and off for two days, in the paper-strewn study off his kitchen. The talk ranged widely - from my handicapped son, Walker, to the crippling guilt parents feel when they give their handicapped children over to the care of others, to what a handicap means in contemporary society.
They were astonishing conversations, and I had suggested we broadcast them or put them on the Internet. But Mr. Vanier demurred. He preferred letters, a quiet correspondence.