Rural life sour for disabled in Utah
Safe, clean and friendly - rural communities are supposed to represent the best of America.
But for people living with disabilities in rural Utah, life is anything but idyllic.
That's the upshot of a yearlong "Listen and Learn" survey of 278 disabled citizens in 26 of Utah's 29 counties performed by the Disability Law Center, a nonprofit disabled-rights group and arbiter of free legal aid. The impetus for the poll, begun last summer and finished this spring, was to discover how the center could better serve the state's 376,000 disabled citizens.
What the survey teams discovered, said the center's director Fraser Nelson, was "shocking."
Statewide, people with disabilities struggle to find jobs, transportation and access public buildings, such as libraries and post offices. They complain of cuts to mental health and Medicaid services and underfunded schools.
But in rural Utah, these barriers are compounded by poverty, isolation and social stigmas.
"We talk a good game about love and compassion," said Nelson, who compared the poverty and isolation in rural Utah to conditions she found doing aid work in the Appalachias. "These people are living lives that are really quite shocking."
Six in 10 report having trouble making ends meet. But the chief complaint was the scarcity of services, such as public transportation, special education programs and job training.
Employment discrimination is rampant, says Nelson. "And even if you land a job, you'll have trouble getting there, because you can't afford or can't physically drive a car and there are no wheelchair ramps or bus lifts."
The 15-year waiting list for disabled services is taking an especially big toll in rural communities, said Nelson.
Even in counties with the largest per capita numbers of disabled - San Juan County at 23 percent and Carbon County at 21 percent of the total population - people reported feeling cut out of the political process.
Says Nelson, there's a feeling that the Legislature looks only at the population count and not the needs of the community.
In regions where services are available, residents don't know how to access them.
The state has worked to promote 211, a free dial-up referral center. But Nelson says, "few people we talked to even knew that existed. They thought it was like 911, the police. And a lot of them said, 'I've had enough to do with the police.' "
Advocates say rural Utah's disabled often keep a low profile to avoid being labeled as unfit to work, the last-picked to volunteer for city functions and the first pegged for committing a crime.
Jerry Costley, the executive director of Utah's Disabled Rights Action Committee, said community leaders in rural areas often refuse to acknowledge that barriers exist for the disabled.
Says Marie Christiansen, a 62-year-old resident of Beaver who lives with multiple sclerosis, "The loneliness and isolation is unbearable. People look at you and don't realize you still have a good mind and abilities."
Christiansen and her husband, John, who is blind and boasts a lucrative career as an attorney, joined a group of disabled petitioning the high school about overcrowded special education classes and inadequately trained teachers.
The group sued the school district for copies of special education budgets. It was later revealed that the school was not keeping records of special education funds.
Said Christiansen, ''We were afraid these funds were getting buried in the budget. There's an attitude here that, 'These kid with disabilities are never going to amount to anything anyway, why should we spend money on them?' ''
Disabled in rural Utah* Six in 10 live in poverty.
Less than a third have access to a computer.
More than a third have problems getting dental care, affordable housing and mental health care.
More than a third reported being discriminated against in the workplace.
One in five had been turned down for Social Security benefits, had spent at least six months on the state's waiting list for disabled services and reported having trouble accessing the government building where they applied.
15 percent don't know their legal rights and can't find attorneys willing to work with them.
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