COLUMBIA — In a room full of people, and even a few guide dogs, candidates for Missouri state offices addressed issues on Saturday afternoon concerning the estimated 1 million disabled Missourians.
The disabilities forum was hosted by the Congress on Disability Policy at the Hilton Garden Conference Center in Columbia. The advocacy group, which started in 2003, includes state associations and councils such as the Brain Injury Association of Missouri and the Missouri Centers for Independent Living.
Barbara Griffin, vice president of People First Missouri, attended along with members of her association and her guide dog, Mardi Gras. She said issues such as cuts to the state's health care program, MO HealthNet, struck a chord with her during the forum.
"They really hurt us in '05," Griffin said.
Candidates answered questions about cuts to MO HealthNet, how they will promote opportunities for people with disabilities and how they would deal with limited resources and wait lists. Improving Missouri's six rehabilitation centers was also discussed.
"I wish everyone in Missouri could tour a rehabilitation center and see what good is happening there," said Sen. Chris Koster, the Democratic candidate for attorney general.
But he added that the centers need more funding, citing a tour of Israel's well-developed rehab centers. "It embarrassed me to see the differences in the degree to which the two cultures offered assistance to the most disabled in their respective countries," he said.
State Rep. Sam Page, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, addressed building accessibility, saying it was a problem for government buildings.
"The Capitol isn't even accessible to people with disabilities," Page said. "How can you lobby if you can't even reach the offices of our state representatives?"
Although Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state were invited to participate in the discussion, only Page and Koster were present. State Sen. Chuck Graham served as a substitute for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon, and legislative liaison Ron Berry volunteered to speak on behalf Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.
Moderator and disabilities advocate Max Lewis and the candidates made it a point to mention that the Republican candidates neither attended the meeting nor sent a speaker in their place.
"I want you to look at all the names up here and take note of who hasn't showed up," Lewis said.
The sentiment reverberated with some attendees.
"In the past, I've leaned toward the Republican Party because of conservative issues like pro-life," Jefferson City resident Jim Casey said. "I'm now preparing to vote for a lot of Democrats because of life issues. Pro-life means more than anti-abortion."
Mitch Hubbard, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, said he wanted to attend the event but had a full schedule and could not find a replacement. Also absent were Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof, lieutenant governor candidate Peter Kinder and attorney general candidate Michael Gibbons. Calls to their offices, which were closed on Saturday, were not immediately returned.
The candidates who attended also used the forum to encourage attendees to register to vote and turn out on Election Day.
"If you want a government to protect the voiceless, elect one that will speak for the voiceless," Koster said.
A disability forum for Columbia office candidates will be held on Oct. 23 at the Columbia Public Library.