Public Input the Key to Effective Policy

Twenty three percent of Michigan adults live with a disability.*  Yet, until recently, the state’s legislation and planning regarding access and independent living has largely been drafted without direct input from the citizens affected by that legislation.  The consumer-led Common Disability Agenda, developed by the Michigan Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC), is changing that. 

All persons with disabilities should have equal access to public places and services. This may seem like common sense, but the concept gets trickier when you consider that, like many other states, Michigan’s budget doesn’t allow for unlimited spending. So what gets funded, and where do our priorities lie? 

The answer to that can only be provided by the people who use the state’s services and programs on a daily basis—or at least would, if they were widely available. It is crucial to not only invite, but actively seek, public input on these priorities. 

As director of the Statewide Independent Living Council, it has been my mission to listen to suggestions from the people most affected by our work. This spring, SILC has begun implementation of its Statewide Plan for Independent Living.  As we do so, we have traveled all over the state and held public forums requesting input from individuals with disabilities, family members, service providers, and advocates. 

We’ve heard from consumers in Traverse City, Saginaw, Muskegon and Marquette. Over the course of the next six to eight months, SILC members will travel to 21 communities from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula. After only a few of these hearings, we’re already drawing key connections between the services available and the need in the communities. 

Michiganders with disabilities deserve reliable and affordable access to healthcare, transportation, job opportunities, and other services. Yet all too often, the disconnect between what is needed and what is available widens if we fail to listen to the priorities of those who know them best. 

Persons with disabilities in Michigan face even greater challenges in the less-populated areas of the state than they do in the city centers. Access to transportation is often more limited, and many businesses lack the financial resources to update to ADA-compliant structures. Our Council member, Aaron Andres, knows this all too well: when he moved to Marquette in 2012, he found limited accessibility a significant hurdle in his job search. By volunteering for an area Independent Living board, he was able to influence policy statewide and improve access for people with restricted mobility. 

Access to health care, too, presents a problem. When Aaron moved from Indiana, switching Medicaid policies was a byzantine nightmare of paperwork, and no one seemed to have the answers he needed. It took determination and patience, but he learned from the experience, and brought that lesson to his work with SILC. 

Aaron is not alone in this: of the respondents to the 2013 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor survey who declared that they were living with disabilities, 46 percent had been in poor physical health on at least 14 days of the previous month. By contrast, only eight percent of those with no reported disability had the same problems.

The same study found that 26 percent of individuals with disabilities had no health care access in the past year due to cost, as opposed to only 12 percent of the non-disabled population. 

We can do better. We have to do better. As Michigan’s population ages and its younger citizens move out of state, solving the independent living crisis must become a priority. We need to build the state’s capacity for independent living. It’s been obvious for some time that our state’s infrastructure is failing its most vulnerable citizens. At SILC, the council faces a hefty challenge, but we also have the opportunity to do it right, and to do right by the people who depend on the council’s planning and foresight. 

Our council is composed of people with disabilities, their family members, and advocates.  The numbers are staggering, and our task is daunting. But already we have received invaluable suggestions from these public input sessions.  I’m confident that—if we continue our outreach and listen to our consumers—we can shape policies that provide the services all Michiganders need, regardless of where they are. We don’t have all the answers yet, but at least we’re asking the right questions of the people who can provide those answers.

For a complete list of our public sessions, visit