More than 100 developmentally disabled residents and their families gathered at an Arroyo Grande park Friday morning to learn about the rights and responsibilities of voting, and to hear candidates explain their positions on issues facing the disabled.
The event, organized by Options San Luis Obispo and other nonprofit organizations, took place on the green surrounding the bandstand at Rotary Park across the footbridge from The Village.
Assembly candidates Fred Strong, Hilda Zacarias and Etta Waterfield spoke to the crowd, and a fourth candidate, Katcho Achadjian, sent a representative. Candidate Matt Kokkonen was not present.
In addition, David Stockdale, who is running for the Republican nomination to oppose Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, in the 23rd Congressional District, spoke with the crowd.
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Stockdale has five children, two of them with Down Syndrome, and he said he knows they all have common needs, including the need to love.
“Nobody here wants a handout,” he said. “They want a hand up.”
Assembly candidates also drew on personal experience in urging the disabled to become involved politically.
Zacarias, for example, has an epileptic daughter and said that helping her taught her how to navigate the complex system of securing help for the disabled. The Santa Maria City Councilwoman said she is familiar with the lives disabled people live and the government programs designed to aid them.
Strong, a Paso Robles City Councilman, said he has had to help his bedbound wife and has spent a lifetime working on what he called “equity” for disenfranchised people; he cited his efforts on civil rights, lowering the voting age and working for wheelchair ramps and other amenities.
Waterfield, a former Santa Maria planning commissioner, cited the case of a friend whose child thrived despite being disabled. She also praised those who came to the event.
“You people are absolutely amazing,” she said, adding that in some ways the disabled think more clearly. “People like us get it all cluttered up and all muddled down.”
Waterfield, Strong, Achadjian and Kokkonen are seeking the GOP nomination for the 33rd Assembly District seat being vacated by Sam Blakeslee. Zacarias is the lone Democrat in the race.
Blakeslee also sent a representative.
The event was more than candidates pitching for votes. County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald set up a voter registration table and explained that those assembled had both the right to vote and responsibilities that go along with that right.
Dwight Hansen of the California Disabled Services Association told the crowd that there are 240,000 people in California with developmental disabilities. That many people can be powerful as a political bloc, Hansen said. Adding the families of the disabled makes it that much more powerful, he said, and adding families and friends makes it a force.
Hansen outlined the dangers facing the disabled as the state cuts back on help. There is, to cite just one threat, the possibility of being forced to go to group homes, he said.
He urged the disabled and their families to be educators, letting the public and politicians know that “you are part of the community.”
Forty years ago, he said, a doctor might have taken a look at some of them and said, “Put them in an institution.” Political pressure from parents changed that, and that pressure must continually be applied, he said.