Adina Zahradnikova, executive director of Utah’s Disability Law Center, says her big, “pie in the sky goal is to close the doors of the Disability Law Center." To her, that would mean, "that the world is free of discrimination and all people have access to necessary services." She has seen a lot of progress toward that goal, but says, "There are still a lot of battles to fight."
In 1978 the federal government designated that each state was required to have a protection and advocacy agency to esnure the rights of people with disabilities. Utah’s agency is the Disability Law Center, on 205 North 400 West in Salt Lake City. The directors work to make sure that everyone, regardless of abilities, is treated with dignity and respect. They do this through a variety of methods and focus on problems with abuse, transportation, education, employment and access.
The Disability Law Center is a private, nonprofit organization headed by a board of directors and a consumer-driven advisory board made up of attorneys and mental health professionals. All of the people there are working under a mission statement that says, “The mission of the Disability Law Center is to enforce and strengthen laws that protect the opportunities, choices and legal rights of people with disabilities in Utah.” Their vision states, “We envision a just society where all people are treated with equity, dignity and respect.” That is a big mission to take on, but the people who work there are dedicated, as indicated by their progress.
There are many laws already in place to protect the rights of the disabled under the American with Disabilities Act, but new situations can arise that are not covered. In those cases, it is the job of the Public Policy Team to lobby for new protections with the legislature. It is also necessary, at times, to involve the courts in discrimination matters, but Zahradnikova says, "Less 2 percent of what we do involves formal litigation." When they do involve themselves in litigation, it is to change systems that impact a lot of people and generally not for individual issues.
Finding alternative solutions to existing problems, educating people about the law, training in life skills and overseeing outreach programs form the bulk of their services. Anyone with a disability is free to contact the Disability Law Center and receive the help they need at no cost. Once they contact the office, they may be referred to an agency that can help them. They may be directed to training programs to teach them a life skill and ultimately how to be a self-advocate. In some cases, they will be sent to one of the attorneys if it appears rights have been violated. Cases like this usually involve being passed over for promotion or terminated in the work place, or a lack of accommodations.
One area they deal with is access. Their goal is to make sure that people with disabilities have access to voting areas, transportation, programs and buildings. Access falls under the American with Disabilities Act, but is not always enforced. They may hear from someone who, because of a wheelchair, can’t get into a polling place. They do some investigating and try to come up with solutions that will satisfy everyone. But the bottom line is that everyone has a right to vote and in order to vote you need access to the polling place. So the solution has to involve an accommodation that will allow the person in the wheelchair to vote or be able to take public transportation or easily get into a public building.
They work on removing physical and attitude barriers. Zahradnikova says, "One of the tools we use to do that is making sure everyone involved has the right information." They inform people of the rights of people with disabilities. They remind them that the American with Disabilities Act provided people with rights not privileges.
Another area they focus on is fair housing. They work under the precept that everyone has the right to accessible and affordable housing. Recently they helped with a case where someone who needed to have a support animal was required to pay an expensive pet deposit. They were able to resolve the situation with information. Sitting down and discussing the problem and informing the landlord of the person’s rights resolved the situation. A lot of their tools, used in numerous cases, involve disseminating information.
One of the biggest areas of focus is education. Zahradnikova says, "We receive about 400 calls a year requesting help with education issues." She estimate that 60,000 kids with disabilities are in Utah’s school system.
Zahradnikova also says, "Public school systems have a big potential to help kids with disabilities due to the amount of time that kids spend in school." A big step forward in education are student individualized education plans, or IEPs. Several members of a school team along with parents come up with an individualized plan to help a student with a disability succeed in school. The most important part of the plan is that it is individualized to meet the specific needs of a specific student.
The struggle in education is sometimes funding. Individualized plans can be expensive when they require one student to have a full-time aide or another student with communication problems to have full-time access to a computer. But every child is entitled to an education, and sometimes in order to receive that education, accommodations need to be made. Bigger districts have more funds and don’t struggle as much as some of the smaller, rural districts. According to Zahradnikova, "The Disability Law Center works with school districts to extend the privileges of education to each child."
They also help people with employment issues. "The main goal of the employment advocacy is to help those with disabilities become independent," Zahradnikoa says. They put people with disabilities in touch with programs like CAP, client assistance program, and Vocational Rehab, a training program for employment. Besides getting people to the agencies that can help them, they make sure that the law is followed or changed if needed. Zahradnikova says, "We see this as an obligation to make things better and remove the barriers for integration in society."
One other area that is addressed is cases of abuse and neglect. It is their core issue and the reason the Disability Law Center came into existence 35 years ago. Zahradnikova says, "Things have improved, and we've come a long way, but abuse and neglect are still happening." They had 127 reports of serious abuse in 2011. It is the hardest part of their job, and they would like nothing better than to see the number of abuse reports reduced to zero.
Zahradnikova says, "If we can remove barriers, stereotypes, stigmas and fears, we believe it can lead to a world of no discrimination of any kind." They are in business to change lives, communities and attitudes.
Everyone at the Disability Law Center, from the attorneys to the short-term assistance team, from Zahradnikova to the volunteers, are dedicated to meeting the goal of a “just society where all people are treated with equity, dignity and respect” and one day closing their doors for good.
After attending BYU and the University of Utah for five years and not being able to settle on just one major, Connie Lewis decided to be a writer so she could keep studying all things wonderful and new.