A 2007 survey of American Indians living with disabilities in the Four Corners area found that 41 percent could not get the services they needed in schools. An additional 27 percent reported a child was unjustly disciplined in school for behavior related to a disability.
The survey, conducted by the Native American Disability Law Center, confirmed a number of suspicions about students with disabilities and quality of education, Director Therese Yanan said.
"People were most concerned that we do something about abuse and neglect," she said. "They want us to make sure responsible agencies investigate so people with disabilities are protected."
The findings raise questions for the law center, Yanan said. With a staff of 11 attorneys and advocates based in Farmington and Gallup offices, it lacks the resources to address every complaint.
The nonprofit organization advocates for rights of more than 67,000 American Indians with disabilities on the Navajo, Apache, Ute and Hopi reservations and border towns. Its services include educating parents about rights for children with disabilities, providing legal assistance and mediation and directing clients to community, state or federal resources.
"Even if we tripled our staff, we would still be running as fast as we can," Yanan said.
Nearly 50 percent of clients served by the law office report a developmental disability, but the office also serves American Indians with physical and psychiatric disabilities. About 4 percent of clients reported a traumatic brain injury.
American Indians are more likely to report disabilities than the general population, and the gap widens with age, according to United States census statistics. In a 2006 survey, 8 percent of American Indian children ages 5 through 15 reported a disability, compared to 6.3 percent of the general population. The gap widens as the population ages, with 20 percent of American Indians ages 16 to 64 reporting a disability, compared to 12.3 percent of the general population.
Participants in the study cited quality of special education programs in reservation schools as one of the top complaints, Yanan said. Other issues included difficulties finding housing and medical care.
"I haven't heard of anywhere else in the country where you have a person living in one state and getting services in another state from a program that's run by a tribe but funded by the federal government," she said. "You have this sort of bureaucratic quagmire, and the delivery system for resources to Native Americans with disabilities can be overwhelming."
Management of federal and tribal resources often translates into poor service on a personal level, which further victimizes people already suffering from disabilities, Yanan said. The law center is involved in several lawsuits against government agencies that exhibited discriminatory behavior toward American Indians with disabilities.
The scenario isn't exclusive to people with disabilities, however, Yanan said. It's a common occurrence especially on the Navajo Nation, which has more needs than resources. Medical, legal, economic agencies are constantly understaffed and overburdened, she said.
"Resources are scarce across this area, and there are a lot of challenges," she said. "Those challenges can be exacerbated if people don't feel like they're making a difference."
A common complaint voiced by people surveyed was a feeling of being invisible because of a disability, she said, but discrimination also has an uglier side.
"There's a sort of discrimination that's not really malice-based, but more of a lack of awareness," she said. "Then there's outright discrimination where clients are denied a job or access to a building. The extreme case of discrimination is hate crimes, where people are getting physically harmed because they have a disability."
Many of the law center's cases focus on children with disabilities, said Yolanda Sandoval, a parent advocate. When schools fail to provide quality special education services, the entire community feels the effect. Problems in the schools, ironically, stem from a lack of education, she said.
Teachers, parents and students have reported incidents of discrimination in schools; others claim special education programs either don't exist or aren't meeting students' needs.
"A lot of principals aren't aware of some of the disability laws out there," Sandoval said. "Educators sometimes don't understand disabilities and the behaviors that manifest because of them, so they suspend or expel students because of the disability."
When a disability is untreated, a student does not progress, Sandoval said. The result is adults with disabilities who lack the skills to attend college, find jobs or achieve financial independence.
Alysa Landry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Free services for American Indians
The Native American Disability Law Center is a Farmington-based nonprofit organization that advocates for rights of American Indians with disabilities. Services are free to any American Indians in the Four Corners area and include legal services, education and mediation. Representatives of the law center will travel across the Four Corners area to meet with clients. Contact the law center at (505) 566-5880 or (800) 862-7271.
Needs of American Indians with disabilities
Additional findings on needs of American Indians with disabilities. Source: Native American Disability Law Center.