The new executive director of Disability Rights Iowa says one of the challenges she faces in her job is that relatively few Iower see themselves as disabled.
Two months ago, Catherine Johnson replaced Jane Hudson as head of the government-funded, privately owned organization dedicated to helping Iower with disabilities. Despite growing up in Iowa, Johnson has spent the past 17 years working on disability issues in neighboring Kansas. Now she is working to familiarize herself with the gamblers and issues in the Iowa disabled community.
“One thing I noticed pretty immediately about Iowa,” she said, “is the percentage of people in Iowa who identify as a person with a disability.”
At the national level, she said, around 26% of the population consider themselves disabled. But Iowa is only about 11%, and that’s not exactly a cause for celebration, she said.
“One of the things I’m really interested in in my new role at Disability Rights Iowa is staying true to our mission to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities in Iowa. But therein lies the task of showing and educating Iowans what we mean when we talk about disabilities. “
She said the lower percentage in Iowa is worrying as the disability rights community “has come together for the past 31 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to be a united force in advocating for others.” . Subjects. Iowans are much stronger when 26% of us stand together and address these various issues within the community. “
The fact that so few Iower acknowledge having a disability might speak for their independent nature, Johnson said, but it could also mean Iowans do not benefit from the help, protection, and opportunities available to them.
“If you have a disability, you are entitled to federal and state protection from discrimination based on that disability,” she said. “Well, it’s one thing to say, ‘I’m not going to identify as disabled.’ This is your right as this is a voluntary identification. But it is another matter simply not to know and not to be aware that one is entitled to this protection. “
She said that people with a mental health diagnosis in particular are often unaware that the ADA protects them from discrimination in employment, government services and public housing.
“So this is something I’m looking at pretty closely because it affects the number of people we can help, and I want DRI to provide resources and support and legal advocacy for every single person we can,” she said.
Johnson plans to tour the state and attend a number of forums in an effort to better manage the Iowans’ problems, as well as spreading the word about DRI’s mission.
“One thing that I know affects the disabled community – because it affects everyone – is COVID-19,” she said. “Can our community access the vaccines if they want? Are there any barriers to accessing vaccines and vaccination clinics? “
In the pandemic, employers are accustomed to working from home
The pandemic, she said, could have a positive effect on Iowans with disabilities: employers who used to find it difficult to visualize and agree to remote work agreements are now used to it, and some fully accept them.
“There is now this global, societal understanding that people can work remotely these days,” she said. “And that creates a greater chance for people with disabilities to find competitive employment.”
In addition to people with physical disabilities, powerers with mental and cognitive disabilities can function better and be more productive when they work from remote locations, she said.
Johnson describes himself as a “coalition builder”
At times, DRI has come into conflict with the state of Iowa, and specifically with the Iowa Department of Human Services. DRI has successfully sued the state more than once for enforcing changes in the way Iowa cares for disabled people in DHS-operated care facilities.
Last year, DRI won a federal lawsuit against the state of Iowa for treating teenagers at Boys State Training School in Eldora. US District Judge Stephanie Rose blamed the state for violating children’s constitutional rights at the school, which houses court-ordered adolescents in distress.
In her ruling, the judge said the school provided inadequate psychiatric care, abused solitary confinement and routinely used a device Rose called “torture” – a restraint known as a “wrap” that holds children immobile.
Former DRI chief executive Sylvia Piper has been a fierce and frequent critic of some state officials, while her successor, Hudson, appeared to favor a less confrontational – but arguably no less effective – approach to conflict resolution after she took over in 2012.
Johnson said she sees herself as a “coalition builder” who can build on Hudson’s legacy. “Jane has just laid a phenomenal foundation for what I want to do when building new partnerships,” she said, noting that some people in the community with disabilities are marginalized because of where they live.
“There are large parts of our state that I think very few people go to to provide services. I think of the corners of our state and want to make sure that we are available to the people who live there. “
Johnson received her bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Iowa. She served as the Assistant Dean of Studies for the St. Louis University School of Law, was the director of student legal services at the University of Iowa, and served as a disability rights attorney at the Disability Rights Center of Kansas.
Prior to being named executive director of DRI, she was the director of the ADA Resource Center for Equity and Accessibility at the University of Kansas.