IM this article to a friend!

October 3, 2003

Dual status of disability, race studied

From: Salt Lake Tribune, UT - Oct 3, 2003

By Brandon Griggs
The Salt Lake Tribune

As a black Utahn with mental illnesses, John Adams is a double minority. This rare status compounds both his sense of marginalization and the challenges he faces in getting treatment.
"A lot of service providers haven't dealt with many African-Americans with a disability," said Adams, who suffers from chronic anxiety and depression. "They don't understand my culture."
So the Salt Lake City man was thrilled Thursday to take part in a daylong summit on race and disability at the Salt Lake City Library, where about 75 people gathered to discuss issues common to both minority groups. The event, organized by the Disability Law Center in conjunction with Weber State University's annual Diversity Conference, is the first of its kind in Utah and perhaps the nation.
An estimated 17 percent of Utahns -- more than 350,000 people -- have a disability. There are no statistics on how many of these also are members of ethnic minorities, but officials believe the number, fed by Utah's Latino immigrant boom, is growing.
Members of both groups say they face similar hurdles such as poverty, discrimination, lack of political clout and, sometimes, a public backlash created by perceptions that they get special treatment. Many also share fears that they cannot find help or afford services.
"There's so much common ground [between the groups]," said Fraser Nelson, executive director of the Disability Law Center, a Utah nonprofit that protects the rights of people with disabilities through legal advocacy. "By bringing together people who share a common experience of 'otherness,' we can help create a dialogue in our state about the need for greater equal rights for all citizens."
Reinforcing this message was keynote speaker I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, the world's only university whose programs and services are designed specifically for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Jordan, who lost his hearing in a car accident at 21, is the first deaf president in the 139-year history of the Washington, D.C., school.
Gallaudet's board of trustees initially chose a hearing candidate for the job in 1988, then reversed course and chose Jordan after a weeklong protest by students that made international news. The episode galvanized the disability community and led to Congress passing the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.
"Disability is not in people. It's more a relationship between the person and the environment," Jordan told the gathering, signing with his hands as he spoke. "Change the environment and you eliminate the disability. And you can extend that thinking to many disability issues."
Invoking Martin Luther King Jr., Jordan said he dreams of a day when people with disabilities are not victims of prejudice.
"To have people with disabilities actively and fully participating in life requires more than [wheelchair] access," he said. "It requires respect."
Attending Thursday's summit were representatives of service providers, including Valley Mental Health; government agencies such as the state Office of Ethnic Affairs; advocacy organizations such as the Disabled Rights Action Committee; and ethnic minority groups, including the National Tongan American Society. Attendees split into small groups to discuss race- and disability-specific issues, then reunited to share ideas about how best to help their shared constituents. One such idea: educate disability service providers about clients' cultural and ethnic differences.
Organizers plan to hold a second summit next spring that will bring more racial minorities with disabilities into the discussion.

© Copyright 2003, The Salt Lake Tribune