By SUSAN ODGERS
— Last week, I gathered a group of community members with various disabilities to discuss their priorities for the Nov. 2 election.
In the United States, there are 33.7 million people of voting age with disabilities. Voting is a fundamental right. Electing the candidates who will work for all of us is a tremendous responsibility.
The people I met with have a variety of hidden emotional and physical disabilities, including asthma, heart disease, colitis and depression.
"We are different people, but we're concerned about many of the same things," said Denise. "We care about employment, Social Security, our natural environment, BATA, access at our parks, local control of our health care system, access to all community services and activities, and insurance regulation.
"We also want elected officials to guarantee that stimulus dollars will be spent in a way that benefits everyone, including people with disabilities," she said.
Tonya is a young mother with a hearing impairment. She is frustrated by the lack of professional interpreters in the area. She depends on texting to communicate.
"It's unusual for me to find a certified interpreter when I'm seeking legal assistance, visiting a medical center or governmental office," Tonya said. "I have never met a candidate who reached out to people who are deaf. I want elected officials to enforce the (Americans with Disabilities Act). I want them to respect, learn about and represent voters with disabilities."
James is a student who struggles with mental illness. He's concerned there are too few treatment services in the area.
"I want equality and fairness between the government dollars that are allocated for mental health illnesses compared to physical health issues," he said. "Mental health receives far less. I've been incarcerated in our local jail. Too many people with mental illness are in jail instead of receiving mental health services. I've met many military veterans in jail, too. I'm concerned about the long wait for available services and the strict criteria for receiving services. I want the complaints my family and I have made about area mental health services to be taken seriously. I also wonder why our community has so few aftercare programs."
I also met with senior citizens with mobility and sight issues. They're concerned about abuse and neglect in area facilities. They also worry that people living on a fixed income are being left out of community planning decisions.
"Many of our friends are in long-term care centers," said one. "We're fierce advocates for protecting seniors and persons with disabilities from exploitation. We want more dollars spent for police and the prosecuting of people who hurt those who are vulnerable."
Todd and Sylvia are middle-aged parents of a son with autism. They've been reading about the changing regulations related to the use of seclusion and restraint in the schools.
They feel as though they're constantly battling the schools to ensure their son receives the education he deserves. They're especially interested in the school board election.
For me, I'm concerned all precincts are accessible. Accessibility includes everything from ramps, assistive devices, parking and signage to knowledgeable and respectful poll workers.
Years ago, my precinct had to be changed because an elevator to the voting area wasn't working. Recently, people have told me their precincts have suddenly been changed without notice, sometimes resulting in more accessibility issues.
Reviews appear mixed regarding the AutoMARK accessible voting machines. When the machine first came out, I was part of a pilot group with the secretary of state's Bureau of Elections. People with various disabilities gave their feedback prior to the adoption of the machines. Anyone can use the machines but people with disabilities do not have to use the machines.
I want people with disabilities to vote. I want voters to ask the candidates the tough questions. I want the candidates to come to where we live, work, educate and recreate, and learn about us and our concerns.
I want us to count and be counted.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 23 years, has used a wheelchair for 34 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle. For more Adapted in TC columns, log on to record-eagle.com/susanodgers.