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Disability Advocacy Organization Opens Exclusive Spanish Intake Hours

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The exclusive Spanish intake hours aren't yet very popular, according to outreach coordinator and bilingual intake specialist Vanessa Santos-Nila. But she expects them to gain more attention with time.

Disability Rights Iowa (DRI) provides advocacy and legal assistance to people with disabilities. In an effort to reach all of Iowa’s populations, they have added an exclusive schedule solely for Spanish speakers: Tuesdays 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Thursdays 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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Disability Rights Iowa

The grant-funded organization is designated as a State Protection and Advocacy System (P&A) through federal mandate. There is a P&A in every U.S. state and territory.

"Our mission and purpose is to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities, and promote community integration and access to services for those folks," staff attorney Charissa Flege said. She clarified DRI is an independent, private nonprofit though, not part of the government.

In an effort to have their clients reflect the state's population demographics, DRI staff worked with community leaders within the Latino and Spanish-speaking communities to determine the first step needed was offering those exclusive Spanish hours.

Vanessa Santos-Nila, the new bilingual intake specialist and outreach coordinator at DRI, helped lead the initiative. She said bringing the conversation to Latino communities in the state will be a long-term project.

“You know there’s a lot of barriers within our community, there's the stigma, the fact that, you know, disability or discapacidades is not even something that is spoken about. And if it is, it's spoken about in a very negative light," Santos-Nila said.

DRI is partnering with the Iowa Office of Latino Affairs in an awareness campaign for the new Spanish intake hours. They started with simply advertising a definition for "disability" in Spanish.

"For people who don't speak Spanish or from Spanish-speaking communities, they don't understand that we have to start from the basics, like what is a disability? What is the definition? And from there just work very methodically to kind of make the community aware," Santos-Nila explained. "Then hopefully years down the line, we'll become an agency that they can look at and recognize: 'Okay, yes, I have a disability or I have a child with a disability.'"

As an example to describe the difficulties talking about disability in Spanish, Santos-Nila brought up the complexities of Spanish grammar. When describing a person's feeling, the Spanish language uses a temporary verb. There isn't a lot of flexibility in the language to describe a long-term mental or emotional status.

Santos-Nila said there's one other aspect to consider: "I think just lack of information is what's causing us from not being able to talk about it."

The exclusive hours haven't warranted many calls yet, but Santos-Nila said reaching a new community will take some time.

And it's time well spent according to DRI attorney Flege. She said ensuring all communities have access to resources has a ripple effect across the state.

"If you look at our community as a whole, we all do better when everybody's needs are met, when everybody has access to employment, when everybody has access to health care, when everybody is able to stay employed at jobs that they love," Flege said. "This is important to Iowans. Collectively."