Disabled learn to advocate for themselves

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By Merilee Dannemann

Being wheelchair-bound was just one of this woman’s physical limitations. She couldn’t use her arms. She could barely talk; her mouth would not form the words. Her caregiver had to wipe spittle from her face.
The device that helped her speak was a visual reader. An electronic display was attached to her wheelchair. She could select a letter of the alphabet by looking at it, and it would help her build words and sentences. I talked with her just a few times, resisting my impatience at the slow pace as I thought of how much patience her life required every day.
She had a doctorate in psychology. This is how far we have come in the treatment of people with disabilities.
New Mexico celebrated this progress recently at the annual Southwest Conference on Disabilities, an extraordinary event — now annual — that attracted an estimated 1,200 people, including visitors from 36 states and a few countries. The conference was sponsored by the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
The halls were dotted with wheelchairs, assistance dogs, white canes and vigorous conversations in sign language. I had missed the miniature ponies, the newest species used as assistance animals. Among the artists and craftspeople (all disabled) was a fellow selling hand-carved wooden canes.

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