Officials: Diversity includes those with disabilities

BY ANNA LOTHSON | APRIL 14, 2009 7:40 AM

As the UI community attempts to increase disability awareness while the state budget slims down, officials in the mental-health program worry about future funding.

But with the volume of the cuts still unknown, discussion of how to aid those with disabilities remains on the table.

At an event Monday honoring Bill Sackter — a mentally disabled man who spent 45 years institutionalized before becoming a face of the UI School of Social Work — Tiffani Stevenson Earl, an attorney from the UI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, spoke about recent changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“People don’t realize disability is a part of diversity,” she said, and if the UI wants to continue to promote equal opportunity, those with disabilities must not be overlooked.

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Stevenson Earl said one plan under the UI Disability Planning and Action Committee is to participate in the budget-reduction process to stay aware of the effect on the disability-inclusion efforts.

But as discussion continues, some in the community are feeling the financial pinch.

Tom Walz, a former director of the UI School of Social Work who manages Uptown Bill’s projects — businesses run by people with disabilities — said he worries those programs will be hit “disproportionately more.”

And while the award-winning documentary A Friend Indeed, which tells Sackter’s heartwarming story, has inspired selflessness for many, the uncertainty of stable finances is a constant worry, Walz said.

With a gloomy economy and rising rent prices, he said, Uptown Bill’s is feeling the pain, and in Johnson County funding alone, he expects a 25 percent loss.

Stevenson Earl said though disability discrimination is prohibited by law, new amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act could help broaden the range of how to define a disability — enabling people to be more easily employed.

Walz said besides offering a social outlet, community programs aiding those with disabilities offer a unique opportunity often unavailable at traditional establishments.

“People who have a disability, or look different, are not welcomed,” he said. “We all know who gets hired.”

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, who stopped by the event to honor Sackter, said in terms of funding, he hoped the federal level can “fill in the gaps.”

Though he said it’s more of a local and state level issue, he hopes the economic-stimulus bill will soften the blow.

Necessary programs — such as disability assistance — is something Loebsack said he hopes the federal government can continue to aid.

“We can backfill some of those cuts,” he added.

Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney said with numbers consistently changing, it’s difficult to see the magnitude of what services will be cut most.

“When it’s beyond their control, it makes it very difficult for them as citizens of this community when they are already addressing monetary issues,” he said.

As a push to help services for the disabled overcome budget cuts, Jefri Palermo, a UI developmental coordinator for the social-work school, said many people stand to be hurt.

“Families and adults with disabilities have always had to struggle for money,” she said. “I don’t understand cutting the most disadvantaged people.”

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