BY SUSAN ODGERS
---- — Five years ago this month, I began writing this column about living with a disability.
Sixty-two columns later, I’m struck by what I’ve learned.
In my early columns, readers seemed to want to know how disability was different from ability. Now they constantly tell me that the column is relatable, whether they have a disability or not.
In 2008, as an issue, I wrote about the need for improved local snow removal. Today, I’m still writing about it. Now, however, the whole community seems to be involved in finding solutions to this challenge.
It’s front page news.
Every day, someone in northern Michigan contacts me to do something about a concern involving disability, the elderly, human rights or health. Most of the time, I know where and how to help. Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed.
In the early days, I often worried that the topics I was writing about were unique to me or too personal. Quickly, readers told me they were using the columns as a bridge to discuss difficult topics with their loved ones — defining a good death, illness and maintaining independence. They also reached out to me seeking connections with people like themselves, who had experienced amputations, cancer and mental health issues.
I learned I was often referred to as a “connector” and “change agent.”
Simple things have meant more to people than I could have ever imagined. I’ve been thanked for letting folks know a person in our community had died or needed support. Readers have enjoyed being introduced to neighbors they’ve never met and appreciated referrals to area resources, thereby becoming better advocates. Tourists have written me saying access information about the Cherry Festival, Traverse City Film Festival, Mobi mat beaches, restaurants; hotels and attractions have made them feel welcomed.
When I haven’t known exactly what I wanted to write about, readers have led me to topics like fire safety, accessible housing, parenting, staring, TV shows like “Push Girls” or movies like “The King’s Speech.”
Living in northern Michigan, I’ve often wondered who really read the column. I was surprised when I learned it was used in academic settings all over the world. Schools included the column in orientation packets, writing and diversity classes and health care trainings. I’ve received requests to include a few of the columns in anthologies and books.
Lots of readers have told me that they share the columns with other people, attach them to their refrigerator or re-post them on social media.
The column that’s received the most feedback was one I wrote in the first year. The piece dealt with a fall I took backward, in my wheelchair, in a local department store restroom. Just last month, a woman stopped me to share her anger over what had happened to me. She said she often thought of the women I met in that bathroom and what she would have done if she’d been in my position.
And recently, I wrote about a situation with my health. I’ve been deeply touched by the concern readers have shared with me via their calls, cards and comments. Eight women, complete strangers, even offered to be my “adopted grandmother/mother” and help me in any way they could.
The new year is almost here. What am I looking forward to in this column?
Another year of sharing our experiences of living in northern Michigan.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 26 years, has used a wheelchair for 37 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.