According to the 2010 Census, 16 to 18 percent of Native Americans have a disability, compared to 11 percent of Anglos who have a disability. Consistently high rates of poverty and unemployment in many Native American communities are dramatically increased for those with a disability. Transportation, housing and accessing community-based services are significant issues for Native Americans with disabilities.
For the past 20 years, I have worked on the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation and with other Native American communities across Arizona and New Mexico. I have also worked with other communities and organizations across the country that focus on addressing barriers for them. What I have learned is the strength of humor and community. Many times, I have talked with friends, who have faced situations that would push me to the edge of my patience.
I have a friend who is Navajo and has a spinal cord injury. She lives independently and drives her own van. I was once talking with her and apologized for keeping her from getting home. It was winter and getting dark, and I knew that she had a long drive that included a dirt road to her home. She laughed and assured me that she had more than enough time to chat, and it would actually help her because she had to wait for the mud on her road to freeze before she could get home anyway. Many in her community could park their cars at the pavement and then walk to their homes – a path she is unable to navigate because of her wheelchair. Was she impatient or frustrated by her delay getting home at the end of the day? Not at all, she merely stayed and we continued to talk.
Throughout my years working within the Navajo and Hopi communities, I have watched the disability advocacy community go from virtually non-existent (due to the distances and the lack of transportation keeping people from working and advocating together to address their issues and express their needs) to a vibrant, supportive and effective force. Individuals with disabilities and their families have come together to support and learn from each other. For example, Hopis with disabilities participate in the Navajo Disability Self-Awareness Walk. Navajos with disabilities attend the Hopi Special Needs Activity Day.
Several years ago, individuals with disabilities came together and created a grassroots organization called the Native American Advocacy Group (NAAG – I love that acronym). NAAG organized the first Navajo Disability Self-Awareness Walk, scheduled meetings with government officials to discuss their needs and came together as friends to celebrate their successes. As a result of the various community-based activities, Hopi parents of children with disabilities convinced the Hopi Tribe to create the Hopi Office of Special Needs. The Navajo Nation also passed the Vulnerable Adult Protection Act to address the abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities. Furthermore, both communities have annual Disability Conferences to provide training and information about services and how to access them. All of these and other accomplishments required the community to come together regardless of the barriers and support each other.
Native Americans with disabilities face many challenges that are unique. I could describe in detail these difficulties; the adults who live in institutions because their family homes lack necessary plumbing or electricity; the students with disabilities who are excluded from their schools for weeks and their inability to achieve their potential; the families who live in poverty because they are denied benefits for which they are eligible. I know these issues and their impact. I also know that there is much work to be done. I am privileged to work in this community and alongside these advocates. They have taught me patience, grace and strength. They are indomitable and will achieve more success in the future. I think my friends and colleagues deserve to be recognized for their strength and commitment to making their lives better and obtaining the respect that they deserve.
Therese Yanan began working in Mexican Hat, Utah for DNA – People’s Legal Services, Inc. in 1993. Since 1994, she has been the director of the Native American Protection & Advocacy Project, which began as an office of DNA. In October 2005, the Native American P&A was established as a separate nonprofit organization now known as the Native American Disability Law Center. The Native American Disability Law Center is one of the few disability advocacy offices in the country that focuses on the special legal needs of Native Americans with disabilities. Ms. Yanan specializes in representing adults and children with disabilities. She has represented children in every level of the special education process in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and in schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She has also been involved in major efforts to improve protections for the civil rights of Native Americans with disabilities in federal and tribal courts, to increase statutory protections for Native Americans with disabilities and to expand the understanding of the unique issues facing Native Americans with disabilities.