Women with Disabilities – 27 million of us in U.S.

Featured in The Record Eagle on March 12, 2016 BY SUSAN ODGERS Local columnist

Susan OdgersI am one of the 27 million women in the United States with a disability.

Disabled at age 18, I knew little about eminent women with disabilities, apart from Helen Keller. In high school history classes we learned about FDR and injured Vietnam veterans. Overall, people with disabilities were invisible, especially women.

As a young woman, I had big dreams for my life. I wanted to stabilize my health, vote, graduate college, have a career, family, own a home, travel the world and volunteer in my community. Naively, I believed the route to achieve those goals was the same, able-bodied or not.

In my first year using a wheelchair, I accepted my vocational rehabilitation counselor’s suggestion that I enter the Ms. Wheelchair Michigan pageant. Initially, I thought it was a joke. But learning that Ms. Wheelchair MI was a state spokesperson for people with disabilities, I saw the benefit. I also realized the pageant could help me meet diverse women with disabilities from outside my city. Desperate for role models and help navigating my new world, these women had the information and wisdom I needed.

One of my fondest memories from that pageant was when all of the contestants informally discussed shared problems and solutions. I learned everything from specific ways to advocate for accessible voting in my community, to which colleges and universities were most accommodating. Though a newbie, these women accepted me as one of their sisters in the struggle.

Years later, arriving for the first night of one of my Detroit graduate classes, I learned the professor was a young woman using a wheelchair. That evening, fighting back tears, I glimpsed my future career. Each week, I watched how she did everything from write on the board to getting in and out of her car. I saw, in yet another way, that a woman using a wheelchair could be smart, independent and help others.

March is Women’s History Month. The key collection of laws that protect my right to live as others do, were shaped by the efforts of visionary women. Law such as The Americans with Disabilities Act, Telecommunications Act, Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Rehabilitation Act and the Architectural Barriers Act.

One of those visionaries is Judy Heumann.

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