A ‘judgment-free zone’
The LifeDesigns ReAbility Solutions center has been offering long-term, affordable rehabilitation services for those with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and other chronic illnesses since 1984.
Clients also include people who have been injured in motorcycle and car accidents, in falls off ladders or cliffs (when mountain climbing or hiking), and by gun incidents. Others may have had strokes, low back or joint injuries MS, Parkinson’s disease, or brain cancer, or been impacted by genetic diseases.
The facility has one of the few publicly used functional electric stimulation (FES) bikes in Connecticut. It was donated by the Spinal Cord Injury Association’s Connecticut chapter and has an estimated value of $26,000. It is designed to drive the legs of a patient who’s completely paralyzed at 70 revolutions per minute (rpm) by the use of the person’s own muscles. If the person is only partially paralyzed, the amplitude is reduced to help re-educate the brain and spinal cord, according to owner of the facility, Tad Duni.
“The spine actually has its own brain center and can learn how to walk without the brain,” said Duni. “You have to use FES, locomotor training, and the Redcord on a regular basis.”
Although Duni knows what one of his clients requires to see improvements in mobility, that is not what makes his business successful. The equipment required for his treatment costs thousands of dollars, but with the help of donations and Duni’s ability to build things on his own at a lower cost, he is able to charge his clients significantly less for the service.
“I’m an innovator. For example, the Redcord. I took an $8,700 piece of equipment and built it for around $300,” said Duni. “I was able to put one these in my space exactly like the one they offer, but for under $2,000. I built another for under $200, figuring that out after building this one and using it for a couple of months. You have to innovate if you’re going to provide care at a lower cost.”
Duni also built a specialized body weight-supported treadmill system with help from his son for under $5,000. The product usually costs more than $100,000, but he was able to create it for less by employing used components.
“I bought a used lift and a used treadmill and it works same as the original machine,” said Duni. “Some places will go out and find investors or take out a bank loan to buy the $100,000 piece of equipment. But to get the return on the investment they have to charge $200 for an hour and a half of treatment, whereas we’re going to charge you $55.”
Duni clarified that his facility does not offer physical therapy but is a more long-term service.
“These people are going to be with us for a while, some up to 20 years,” said Duni.
The friendly staff is a bonus but is an equally important component in clients’ success, according to Duni and other employees.
“It’s important for us to help create an environment where the clients can be themselves, so although we’re in here working hard, we have a lot of fun,” said Duni.
Michael Hedrick has been working at the facility for more than three years and said it’s the best job he’s ever had. He recalls working at past jobs where he was discriminated against because of his “intellectual disability.”
“I wish there were more places like this,” said Hedrick. “Everyone here is different, but nobody is judged for that. I never saw myself doing something like this, but now that I am I’m happy that I am able to help people live their lives.”
Paul Stefano said he’s been working with Duni at the facility for approximately 10 years and the rehabilitation services they have provided over that period of time has changed the lives of many clients.
Stefano referred to progress made by one of their clients, a man named Owen, who suffered brain damage after a motorcycle accident.
“When you look at Owen, when he came here he was nowhere near as animated as he is now. Along the way we discover what works best for each client — in his case the best thing we did for him was allow him to use the rolling walker,” said Stefano.
He added that he believes some of the facility’s success comes from aspects other than clients’ physical treatment.
“Our program is much more than physical,” said Stefano. “When they come here, after their workout they hang out with the other clients and it’s really a part of the social component. The interaction among each other really goes a long way.”
The ReAbility center in downtown Shelton serves only 60 clients, with the intensive one-on-one work it offers people and because of space limitations. Many clients are from the Lower Naugatuck Valley, but others come from all over the state. Clients come in to receive treatment anywhere from three to five times a week.
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With a small track for walking and a batting cage set up as a part of B&B Batting Cages, which Duni also owns, the facility treats clients using a wide variety of exercises designed to help them improve their range of mobility.
Clients are also given various “homework assignments” other than the more aggressive exercises they do while at the facility, according to Duni.
“All of the clients were taken out of major Connecticut rehab hospitals and were told they would never stand or walk again, but now they are walking and standing and doing just fine,” said Duni. “Not perfect or technically even walking according to the definition of walking, but then again, 65% of Americans can’t walk according to that scientific definition.”
Duni said he is constantly looking for more volunteers to lend an extra set of hands and they require no experience. Those seeking more information may email Duni at or call 203-924-7866.