This morning I took my dog out for her early morning walk and along the way met another man who was doing the same thing. The differences between the two animals were both obvious and hidden; mine is female and of a mixed breed and his is male and a purebred black Labrador retriever. Their other differences are invisible. My neighbor told me that his dog is a service animal that helps him navigate his wheelchair and take care of other daily living tasks. On human side of each lease were two men with disabling conditions, one of mobility the other of mood.
The brief encounter reminded me of a one day retreat I attended last week about how peers in the cross-disabilities community can help each other in both personal and professional capacities. Hosted by a mental health organization and the local independence center, the retreat was held at a 100 year old mansion built by one of the wealthiest businessmen and philanthropists in our citys' history and provided a beautiful location to network.
The overall theme centered around behavioral health and peer support and there were lively breakout sessions about the history of psychiatric care from the consumer-survivor point of view, the nature and value of trauma-informed care and how sharing one another's recovery story (regardless of disabling condition or life experiences) is powerful in healing and moving forward in whatever career or avocation path we are now engaged in. I was asked to be a part of a panel at the end of the event where each of the four speakers talked about the nature and value of hope for people with disabilities and then fielded questions from the audience on that topic. Two of the panelists had spinal cord injuries, while the keynote speaker and I have psychiatric conditions.
It is very encouraging to note that advocates among the leaders of different peer groups can point to a recent public policy victory; our city has decided to expand bus service so that more residents, especially those with disabilities can get where we need to go when there are no other options in personal transportation. Compared to other medium-size metropolitan areas, Colorado Springs has a very anemic public transit system. Surveys were conducted, people attended town hall meetings, appointments were made with the mayor and letters written to the editor of the local newspaper. Thankfully the mayor and city council are listening and taking action.
Increased dialogue and new ways of taking collaborative action on both public policy and civil rights issues must increase on the part of persons with disabilities. For peers who live with mental health and substance abuse issues there is still much to be done to ensure that laws related to parity in health care, user-friendly implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and community mental health care must go beyond research studies, lawsuits and competing for funding in our fractured delivery systems. We share many common concerns with our brothers and sisters in the blind, deaf , developmentally disabled, and mobility impaired communities. Not to mention we are all neighbors, where some of us have to get up before sunrise to walk our dogs.