Women with disabilities of all kinds will gather Thursday at the Salt Lake Hilton Hotel for the annual Women and Disability Issues Conference, sponsored by the Utah Governor's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

Last year, I attended the conference for the first time and was fascinated by the amount of information that was shared - not only by the speakers, but by participants who traded information and advice during moments of quiet conversation.This year, the subject is "Empowering Women: Personally, Professionally and Politically." That's a way of describing the process where you take charge of your own life and, by enhancing your strengths and dealing with your weaknesses, choose its direction.

The schedule looks interesting - everything from fitness to selling your ideas and persona to becoming independent. There are even segments on drugs and disability, developing job-seeking skillls, technology, getting involved in the legislative process, women in public office and an in-depth look at the Americans with Disabilities Act (which significantly drives policy for those with disabilities, but most people know very little about the act's provisions).

The conference planners have done everything they can to make attending easy, including providing day care for those who requested it in advance.

Interpreters will be on hand to provide sign language for the hearing impaired, and those who made their needs known early are also going to be provided with brailled or taped materials, as well as attendant care if its needed.

The conference isn't just for those with disabilities. Others can learn about some of the barriers these women face in their personal and professional lives.

And anyone who hasn't already discovered it will recognize that these women (and men, too - they attend the conference as well) have a great many abilities although some of them face extraordinary challenges.

It's also a good conference to attend if you just want to learn more about people with disabilities, because no question seems out of place. I learned that firsthand at the conference last year.

Let me explain.

My parents are totally blind, and I consider myself a bit of an expert on that particular disability. I am perfectly at ease guiding someone; I know what to do - and not to do - around guide dogs; I happily read menus, etc. I'm just never uncomfortable with any situation that arises because someone is blind.

But people who believe in a common disability - that all handicaps are alike or should be responded to in the same way - are crazy. And because I grew up with blindness does not mean I have always been comfortable with other disabilities.

So I was extremely uncomfortable when Debra Mair, director of the Independent Living Center, maneuvered her electric wheelchair to move a folding chair out of her way. I was uncomfortable because I didn't know whether I should offer to move the chair for her or if she would be offended and want to do it herself.

Finally, I followed the advice that my parents always give when they speak to classes: If you want to know something, ask. Don't just assume and don't be embarrassed.

Debra told me that she appreciates people offering to help; that she knows she is free to either accept it or reject it - nicely, of course. She also told me that if I offered to do something and she said "no thanks," I shouldn't be offended.

That's a pretty simplistic example of things that can be learned by attending this type of conference, but it's still important. I think we will all be better off when we realize that people are, after all, just people (I know it's a cliche, but how do you think it got to be a cliche).

And the best way I know to accomplish the task of making people understand and accept each other is to introduce them.

** I've got another bad samaritan story. My friend Shirley Hathaway fell down while getting ready to sprint with a short traffic light on Foothill Boulevard and 17th East.

That's a busy intersection. And apparently the people who were operating the scores of cars crowding the road were busy, too, because she was down on the ground for 15 minutes before someone stopped to see if she needed help. And he was in a big hurry, so she had to let him go, since she was in no condition to move at the time.

But at least he stopped and offered to help or to make a phone call for her. It turned out she had a broken ankle.