Disability Rights Iowa holds a town hall to understand accessibility issues in northwest Iowa
Sioux City residents got the opportunity to share their concerns surrounding accessibility at a town hall hosted by Disability Rights Iowa on Wednesday.
The Des-Moines based organization advocates for the legal rights of Iowans with disabilities throughout the state. Through town halls, Disability Rights Iowa aims to understand accessibility needs in regions like northwest Iowa, where their services are less frequently used.
“We can’t do every possible legal issue that comes up, so we really want our work to be focused on what people are currently experiencing as barriers so we can remove those,” said Catherine Johnson, the organization’s new executive director.
At the meeting, Sioux City residents within the disabled community brought up concerns surrounding limited access to COVID-19 vaccine appointments and ASL interpreters at doctors’ offices.
Executive Director of the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland Don Dew said many of the issues have existed in the region for years, but the pandemic has heightened the need.
“It’s always about accessibility. It’s always about making sure that our voices are heard as people with disabilities, that we’re not left behind,” Dew said.
In the northwest region of Iowa, Dew said he’s seeing a growing need for more support within special education and a lack of caregivers for disabled people. He hopes to collaborate with Disability Rights Iowa to help find solutions toward these issues.
Johnson said the pandemic’s impact on the disabled was one of the reasons the organization is actively reaching out to different communities.
“It has changed employment for disabled people. It has changed access to healthcare. I think it has definitely brought up some new legal challenges that we want to make sure we’re considering,” she said.
In the past years, the organization has not received a lot of requests for service from Sioux City, Johnson said. The town hall gave her the opportunity to make the organization and its services, like free legal guidance for some disabled Iowans, more visible to the community within the region.
“We don’t get many calls for help from Sioux City, so I wanted to make sure the community knows Disability Rights Iowa exists and that we’re for them,” she said.
The town halls are also an opportunity to educate on the wide swath of issues that fall under the broad term “disability.” The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protection not only for those with visual or hearing impairments, but for people who suffer from ailments such as asthma, diabetes or HIV/AIDS.
“I want them to have access to their rights and to our services,” Johnson said. “If you don’t know you’re entitled to either of those things, you can’t possibly advocate for yourself.”
Common mental health disorders, such as anxiety or bipolar disorder, also fall into ADA protection. Johnson said part of her mission is to give greater visibility to the mental health issues that plague the state.
“We have ways to support mental health that we’re just not doing right now,” she said.
Eleven percent of Iowa’s population report having a disability, which is more than ten percent lower than the national average. Johnson believes there’s many more Iowans who could claim disability, but are unaware of their protections.
“It’s always about accessibility. It’s always about making sure that our voices are heard as people with disabilities, that we’re not left behind."
The organization will use the community feedback it receives from visits to different parts of the state to formulate the organization’s focus areas, which determines what legal cases they pursue. The agency will collect surveys at each stop to help define it’s plan for policy and advocacy within the next two years.
The organization will hold its next town hall in the eastern part of the state in the Waterloo area. Johnson said she’s looking forward to hearing the priorities of every region of the state.
“The whole point is to make sure that people with disabilities are not abused, neglected, or exploited, and that the rights to full access and full inclusion in all aspects of society are realized.”