You might notice that it took me several days to write about this year’s Annual Conference sponsored by the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities, which concluded on December 9. Why was I holding my tongue? Although the year’s theme was “Improve Yours,” the Council did anything but. For the third year in a row, attendees listened to irrelevant speakers prattle on about subjects of little or no interest to people with disabilities.
The Conference opened with an address from keynote speaker Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City. Yes, a city outside the bounds of Indiana. Mayor Cornett could have shared ideas that he has explored for the betterment of people with disabilities, those that Conference attendees could take back to their hometowns for application, but instead, the Mayor gave a one-hour history lesson about Oklahoma City. Granted, it was entertaining. But I wasn’t there for a comedy show – I wanted to learn something.
In the final 10 minutes or so of his presentation, Mayor Cornett discussed the fact that he put his city on a diet. He was proud to announce that his constituents had lost a collective million pounds. How did they do this? The Mayor said that he didn’t want to take anyone’s food away, so he encouraged exercise programs. He used tax dollars to extend City bike trails. Great. Let me roll down to the bike shop in my wheelchair and get on that…
Fortunately, Conference attendees don’t seem to be willing to put up with terrible conference agendas anymore. Almost immediately, the Mayor was asked about visitability. When he began to discuss tourism, his questioner explained that visitability is a housing concept. If a home is visitable, someone in a wheelchair can get inside through at least one entrance and use one restroom. Sheepishly, the Mayor said that his condo was visitable. Other questions asked from a more aggressive approach regarded public transportation and Oklahoma City’s lack of sidewalks.
After a ridiculously long 2 ½ hour break, attendees were next subjected to an hour-long speech from Dr. Mary Patterson entitled Violence as a Health Issue. Not a single time in her entire address was disability mentioned. Instead, the speech called for reducing violence by getting involved in social programs. Clearly, it was aimed for residents of inner cities. Minority members of inner cities. And those minorities did not come from the disability community. What about theft from personal care attendants? Neglect and abuse against elders and other disabled individuals? Sexual abuse from caregivers?
Although completely ignored by Dr. Patterson, again, Conference attendees were not willing to let the issues drop. State Senator Michael Crider, Reverend Charles Harrison of the Ten Point Coalition, Steve McCaffrey of Mental Health America of Indiana, Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs, Stephen Viehweg of Riley Child development Center, and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman, members of the following panel, were left feel the wrath of unhappy attendees. To their credit, both Mayor Freeman and Director Riggs attempted to provide advice and assistance to the questions they were asked. Most of the panelists were clueless.
I don’t entirely blame conference attendees – speaking gigs are gold stars on resumes, so I why them down? No, I’m too cynical. These are community leaders, and many probably do have an interest in improving services for people with disabilities. They likely had a genuine interest in being part of the conversation.
Instead, the blame rests squarely on the Council itself. After all, don’t they choose the theme and agenda? Have they been listening to feedback from a crowd that gets smaller and smaller with each passing year? Perhaps not.