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Sen. Jon Tester

Sen. Jon Tester listens to advocates for people with disabilities Friday during a roundtable at St. Peter's Health.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says he would like to see advocates for those with disabilities have a bigger voice in shaping policy.

Tester held a listening session in Helena Friday with more than a dozen advocates and providers to solicit feedback and ideas for programs and funding. Topics ranged from transportation issues to service animals to successful programs for those with addiction and mental health issues.

“I think the takeaways are that any time you’re disabled it complicates life, and these folks need to have more attention paid to what their challenges are so that they can be integrated better into society,” Tester said.

The senator said it was the first time in his tenure that he has held a roundtable focused on the needs for those with disabilities, and the meeting was a pure listening session without any ties to legislation.

The listening session was spearheaded by Joel Peden with the Montana Independent Living Project.

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“Transportation is a big deal,” he said, and Montana misses out on the “mass” in mass transportation, which affects those who cannot drive. Peden would like to see expanded community programs for rides, and even in Billings where he lives, more attention paid to alternative modes of transportation such as bikes and sidewalks.

The importance of programs such as vocational rehabilitation for those with vision impairment as well as the Instar Community Services helping those dealing with chemical dependency need continued funding, the panel told Tester.

And service animals and forming an appropriate way to certify them to diminish fraud saw disagreement. Typically left up to states, panelists brought differing views on whether fraudulently certifying animals, which allows access to places otherwise off limits, is widespread and creating a problem for those truly in need.

Tester said some of the issues brought up could be easily dealt with by changing language to not exclude certain disabilities. On a larger level, he said he would like to see advocates grow their voice both at the state and federal levels.

“I really think if we can get the folks that are fighting and working and providing services, whether it’s in this hospital or whether it’s in the nonprofit sector, together, along with the folks that are getting those services, I think there’s a real opportunity to do some things,” he said.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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