County leaders discuss disabilities

People with disabilities were the focus as more than 60 Island County leaders met in Coupeville recently for the county’s first “Embracing Difference” conference.

Attending the all-day event at the Pacific Rim Institute were representatives of government, business, education and nonprofit organizations for a discussion of disability and aging, and how the community can create a more inclusive and supportive environment.

Housing, employment and community integration, and how to fill the gaps in existing services were discussed. Ideas included the creation of an information clearinghouse to connect the parents and individuals with disabilities to community resources, a local public-awareness campaign to debunk myths about disability and aging and strategies for getting these issues on a national policy agenda.

Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson kicked off the event, Island County Commissioner John Dean hosted the noon session and Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik hosted the final session.

The day’s program was organized by John Ryan and Kathleen Ryan, producers of the documentary “Right to Risk‚“ currently airing on Public Television stations across the country.

Among the featured speakers was Peggy Martinez, an instructor for the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, who talked about assistive technologies for people who are blind or have low vision.

Participants plan to carry forward the discussion to their respective communities and organizations on specific issues such as affordable housing, employment and preparing for emergencies.

“I walked away with a better understanding of how this is a critical social issue that affects everyone, and not just the individuals with the disability,” said participant Donna Keeler, a board member of Saratoga Community Housing.

The national Right to Risk Embracing Difference Summit is a pilot program to create a model for communities throughout country to support grassroots initiatives. Its Web site is

For details, contact John Ryan at 360-632-0181 or

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