Boundary County Human Rights Task Force: Disability History & Awareness Month

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Timothy Braatz Guest Opinion

Since October is both National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Idaho Disability History Month, here is a brief note on the Disabilities Rights Movement:

Beginning in the 1960s, disabilities rights groups mobilized to reduce discrimination, ensure access to public facilities, and make independent living possible. They lobbied government officials for legislation and used nonviolent protests to raise public awareness. For example, in 1978, activists in wheelchairs blocked Denver city buses because the transit system was inaccessible to people with physical disabilities. The most significant achievement was passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including workplaces, schools, and transportation.

The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Such activities include, but are not limited to, “the operation of a major bodily function” and “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”

By this definition, everyone will experience disability at some point. Sometimes it is short-term, like a broken foot. Sometimes it is permanent, like memory loss due to head injury. For some people, disability is a lifelong challenge, the result of genetic or environmental issues.

People with chronic disabilities experience high rates of bullying and sexual abuse. Disability is also closely connected to poverty, due in part to employment discrimination, health care costs, and unequal access to education. In many cities, police are the default responders to mental health calls, they typically lack proper training for such crises, and the results are sometimes tragic.

You might recall that the poet Emily Dickinson struggled with chronic illness including possibly manic depression; Abraham Lincoln probably suffered from clinical depression; childhood polio crippled Franklin Roosevelt; and writer and political activist Helen Keller was deaf and blind. Of course, most people with disabilities are not famous. Mostly, they want to be respected and appreciated for who they are and what they can do, not what they cannot.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that almost 40 million U.S. residents, or 12 percent of the population, have disabilities. (Other surveys suggest a much higher percentage.) The Idaho rate is also about 12 percent, suggesting that over 1,400 residents of Boundary County have disabilities.

In accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975) — another of the Disabilities Rights Movement’s achievements — the Boundary County School District provides an Individualized Education Plan for children with disabilities. For students age 16 to 21, the school district collaborates with the state to provide vocational education and training. Special Education Director Sara Yoder emphasizes the role of informed parents in the entire process, as typically they are the best advocates for their children.

According to Mayor David Sims, the city of Bonners Ferry “is committed to improving ADA accessibility at our facilities.” The renovated city swimming pool now has two ADA parking spaces and a lift to assist those with limited mobility into the pool. Mayor Sims says the pool bathrooms will soon meet ADA standards. We might also note that the new South Hill sidewalks will benefit people who use walkers and wheelchairs.

However, like many rural areas, Boundary County lacks a government walk-in facility for disability care, and many residents are unaware of resources that are available:

Kaniksu Health Services (208-263-7101) provides low-cost mental health support and substance abuse treatment.

Rawlings Community Counseling (208-267-0900) provides mental health counseling for children, adults, couples, and families. This includes addictions treatment, community-based rehabilitation, and peer support services. Executive director Treva Rawlings is working with Drug Court participants and North Idaho Recovery to establish a free, walk-in support center for addictions recovery.

Syringa Family Partnership (syringafp.com) is a developmental disabilities agency that provides services to children with autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, and other closely related disabilities. The Bonners Ferry contacts are Mindy Summerfield (208-946-1726) and Tanya Currie (208-217-1244).

Panhandle Special Needs Inc. (panhandlespecialneeds.org), based in Sandpoint, provides developmental disabilities services for adults (208-263-7022).

North Idaho Crisis Center (nicrisiscenter.org) in Coeur d’Alene provides 24-hour mental health and addictions support (208-625-4884).

Art of Redirection Counseling (208-267-9228) offers individual, couples, and family counseling.

Consumer Direct Care Network (consumerdirectid.com) and Progressive Behavior Systems (pbsofidaho.com) provide disabilities services throughout the state.

Here are some other critical statewide programs:

• Administration for Community Living (acl.gov)

• DisAbility Rights Idaho (disabilityrightsidaho.org)

• Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities (icd.idaho.gov)

• Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (healthandwelfare.idaho.gov)

• Idaho State Independent Living Council (silc.idaho.gov)

• National Alliance on Mental Illness (idahonami.org)

Since disability ultimately affects everyone, Disability Awareness Month reminds us to stay alert to and considerate of the needs of others — that’s what makes a healthy community.

• • •

Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College. Previously, he taught at Southern Utah University and Arizona State University. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Arizona State, and is the author of several books, including “Peace Lessons” and “From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir of Privilege and Luck.” Locally, he wrote and directed the dramatic scenes for Vicki Thompson’s recent productions, “A Common Beat” and “Stardust!”

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