Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

December 15, 2012

Adapted in TC: Giving disabled a voice

Today is the four-year anniversary of this column.

Initially, I wrote about how to speak to someone with a disability.

From that very first piece, I began a dialogue with my readers.

As a professor and therapist, I'm accustomed to focusing on others. I concentrate on how I can help people learn. I listen to and hold their confidences. In those roles, what I personally think and feel is rarely important.

Writing this column is different.

Readers have told me that what they appreciate the most are the stories from my personal life. I've learned that what I write is exceedingly intimate for me and them. By reading each month, people who don't actually know me feel like they do. Folks acquainted with me feel like they know me better.

So, after that first column, readers started emailing me their thoughts. First, they shared their concerns about physical access and winter weather. I wrote about our shared experiences of slipping, falling and getting stuck. I discussed handicapped parking spaces filled with dumped snow and ramps buried under ice. I shared information on ordinances and filing complaints.

As a result, many businesses improved their winter maintenance. People with disabilities and health challenges were less fearful and began venturing out more in the winter.

Since then, I've counted on readers to tell me what they care about locally. Almost 50 columns later, I've also trusted that I know what I want — need — to write about. Looking back, here are a few of the many highlights of the past four years.

One of the most prevalent topics readers call me about concerns their children with disabilities and health challenges. Regardless of the specific variables, every parent who has contacted me describes wanting respect, care, opportunity and love for their offspring. As a result, I wrote several columns about my own parents' journey to help me help myself after my stroke at 18.

Through the columns, several parents created or connected with advocacy services for their loved ones. A few people wrote and said they were looking at adopting a child with special needs, something they hadn't ever really considered. For them, parenting a child with physical and mental health challenges no longer seemed impossible. Several parents with disabilities themselves also shared powerful stories of creating their own families.

The deadline for one of my columns came as my husband's beloved mother and my friend, was dying. As a way to make sense of our grief, I wrote about the meaning of a good death. Lots of readers sent me condolence cards and letters. A few even made donations to local charities in her name. I was deeply touched. Many also told me they used my experience to have similar discussions with their own families.

A piece I wrote to honor nurses brought the greatest response from readers. That particular column has been used by speakers in community presentations, nursing school education, applications for hospital accreditation and certification and to recruit nurses.

Many of the more humorous columns have often been repeated nearly verbatim to me by readers while I'm waiting in line at the movies. The favorite seems to be the piece I wrote about doing my holiday shopping where among other things, I got trapped inside a circular clothing rack and couldn't get out. My husband couldn't find me and had to get the help of the store security.

Readers have also utilized the column in their own remarkably creative ways. It's been used in college English classes to teach point of view and description, copies have been inserted into numerous law/social work/medical school orientation packets and it's been posted on various blogs all over the world. Additionally, I've been asked to speak before many groups and organizations.

The Hall of Fame section of the column has allowed me to celebrate numerous people in northern Michigan who have improved the lives of people with disabilities. I've also been able to include lots of resource boxes filled with information on many topics. People have stopped me in the grocery store to tell me they've clipped the columns on thankfulness, anxiety, love, anger and hope and stuck them to the front of their refrigerator.

I've written about members of our community who have been ill, struggling or died. Readers have responded by reaching out to assist these folks and their families. Months after I've first mentioned the name of someone in need, I'm told by the grateful recipients that cards, calls and visits keep coming.

Yes indeed, it's been a dialogue.

Let's keep it going.

Hall of Fame: All of the people who have contributed to "Adapted in TC." Thank you for your interviews, suggestions, communications and readership these past four years.

Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 25 years, has used a wheelchair for 36 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.

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