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Mayoral candidates open up at forum on issues affecting disabled community

From left to right, mayoral candidates Dorothy Brown (at podium), Gery Chico, Lori Lightfoot, Garry McCarthy, Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas, attend a forum to discuss issues facing the city's community of people with disabilities. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

From left to right, mayoral candidates Dorothy Brown (at podium), Gery Chico, Lori Lightfoot, Garry McCarthy, Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas, attend a forum to discuss issues facing the city's community of people with disabilities. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Several candidates for Chicago mayor opened up on Thursday about people in their lives with disabilities and how those interactions would shape their mayoral priorities.

At a forum hosted by the advocacy group Access Living, ten contenders agreed they’d highlight issues facing Chicago’s disabled community of more than 292,000 — about 11 percent of the population. Some of the candidates said those issues hit close to home.

Former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot recalled her father’s struggle to find work after losing his hearing following a long illness.

“I watched him struggle firsthand, with the isolation that comes with being different in a world that frankly didn’t recognize or respect the disabled community,” Lightfoot said.

Former Chicago Police Department Supt. Garry McCarthy said his father had similar struggles after losing a foot in a 1968 car accident.

“I watched him literally stripped of his dignity as he moved forward for the rest of his life. And it was one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever endured … We need a compassionate government that pays attention to everyone in the population.”

Gery Chico recounted breaking both hips when he was 13 and using a wheelchair for a year while he missed his freshman year of high school.

“This is in my soul,” said Chico, who previously sat on Access Living’s board of directors.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said he struggled with a stutter into his 30s, an experience “that gave me a sensitivity to the important role government can play in ensuring that everyone has accessibility.”

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she got a glimpse of what it was like to live with a disability when she broke an ankle in 2014 and was briefly confined to a wheelchair. She said she also has two siblings who were left disabled by strokes, and that she’s hired senior employees in the clerk’s office who have disabilities.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said her sibling’s struggle with mental illness took “a terrible toll on his life opportunities and also the rest of our family.” She touted her oversight of the expansion of behavioral health and substance abuse programs in the county, and securing affordable housing for the disabled during her time as an alderman.

Those candidates — along with Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, Austin Chamber of Commerce director Amara Enyia, attorney John Kozlar — mostly echoed each other in calling for appointing people with disabilities to top management positions, enhancing enforcement of ADA regulations and regulating the ride-share industry to provide accessible fleets.

Twenty-one people are vying to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the Feb. 26 election.

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