A new program based at the University of Montana will help ensure that disabled Native Americans across the nation get improved services, as well as expanded employment opportunities.
The American Indian Disability Technical Assistance Center, or AIDTAC, was launched with the help of a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. The center will be a networking source and training ground to help tribes, urban Indian organizations, and non-Indian providers better serve disabled tribal members, says Director LaDonna Fowler.
A key focus, Fowler says, will be to work with the 65 vocational-rehabilitation programs around the country that primarily serve Indian people. Another goal is to expand disability-rights coalitions, such as the American Indian Rehabilitation Rights Organization of Warriors, so they can become more powerful.
Fowler says many tribes don’t have specific policies and programs that take their disabled members into account. At the same time, she says, Native Americans have the highest percentage of disabling conditions within the nation’s ethnic-minority populations.
One of the center’s projects, she says, will be to help tribes identify disability “infrastructure gaps” that hinder the allocation of necessary services. The work includes uncovering each tribe’s needs, the types of services that are already available, and identifying what actions are needed to close the gaps.
“We’re kind of the puzzle piece that’s been missing,” she says. “As tribes become aware that tribal members with disabilities have specific needs, AIDTAC will help them develop the infrastructure of housing, transportation, personal assistance services and other programs that allow people with disabilities to live and work in their communities.”
Fowler notes that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is designed to protect the rights of people with disabilities, but it doesn’t apply to tribal lands. Tribal employment policies in particular often don’t include provisions for the disabled, she says, and the center can help tribes adopt the policies necessary to break down employment barriers while retaining their sovereignty. But there’s more to it than gaining ground in the employment arena, she says.
“If we stress employment without looking first at whether a tribal member with a disability has the services to meet his or her daily living needs, an accessible home to live in, and the means to travel to and from a job, then we limit that person’s potential for success,” she explains. “This has to be long-term and ongoing. The issues of disability aren’t going away.”
The center is housed within UM’s Rural Institute on Disabilities in Corbin Hall.