Utah’s Disability Law Center, an advocacy instrument for people with disabilities

Story and slideshow by DYLAN LIERD

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population has some type of disability. In Utah, the Disability Law Center works to reinforce the laws that protect the almost 300,000 Utahns with disabilities, to better defend the rights of this large demographic.

The DLC is the only law agency in Utah that provides educational and self-advocacy assistance concerning legal and educational rights for citizens with disabilities.

The center is a private, nonprofit organization that conducts its services for clients at no cost. The agency’s headquarters is located on 205 N. 400 West in Salt Lake City.

The agency is also designed to administer federal protection and assistance for people with disabilities in result of the federal government mandating all states to have a protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities. This was created in 1978, and is still enforced today.

Six attorneys are currently at the DLC. The rest of the organization’s staff members in Salt Lake City, Logan and Cedar City help the center’s attorneys oversee home and community-based services for more than 4,400 Utahns.

Andrew Riggle is the public policy advocate for the DLC. He said advocacy for people with disabilities has changed for the better, but a lot of work still needs to be done.

“We try to push the envelope as much as we can within the agency, and also externally, to talk to people and let them know how capable people with disabilities are, and how much more they would be able to do if they are given a little support,” Riggle said. “I think that is one of the biggest challenges that we are facing with disability in general. People with disabilities don’t have high expectations for themselves and the community doesn’t either.”

The agency conducts open outreach programs to educate the public about the potential of Utahns with disabilities. These programs are administered throughout the state and everyone is welcome to attend.

Support for Utah’s communities

According to the center’s 2012 annual report, 1,677 individuals with a physical disability received services. Nearly as many clients — 1,637 — pursued legal guidance for issues concerning a mental illness. The center also served 579 individuals with an intellectual disability and 242 people with a brain injury.

To become a client, individuals must prove they have been discriminated against within the workplace, public building or private business.

In the workplace, the DLC helps people receive necessary services, reasonable accommodations and Social Security benefits. Staff will also make sure employers do not discriminate or ask questions concerning clients’ disability.

For housing discrimination, the center ensures that affordable housing can be granted to all citizens with disabilities.

The agency works with landlords and property owners to make certain they do not hike rent or discriminate against people who are trying to purchase a home.

Staff lawyers also advocate for increased accessibility where people with disabilities live, such as an apartment complex, so their clients can obtain optimal living conditions.

In addition, the DLC works within the public school system.

According to the DLC, 60,000 K-12 students have a disability in Utah. In order to protect their legal rights, the center ensures that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are implemented.

Another portion of the Disability Law Center’s work entails observing organizations and group homes for people with disabilities. This is conducted by a section of the DLC called the Monitoring and Investigation Program, which inspects a variety of for-profit and nonprofit organizations such as the Utah State Hospital or Utah Independent Living Center. This is done to confirm that organizations are abiding by ADA and DLC standards.

The program legally grants the center the ability to visit an organization or group home at unexpected times to view the living and social conditions of the area. The agency sees if there are alternative ways an establishment can better serve its patrons.

“With the Monitoring and Investigation Program, we are able to advocate for greater amounts of community living programs for people with disabilities and help those that are living in community homes have good living conditions,” said Erin Hough in a phone interview. “Every good law center has an investigation area to research and look out for the best interests of their clients, and that is what we are doing,” said Hough, who is the advocate for the DLC in charge of the program.

Taylor Campion, a law student at the University of Utah and law clerk for the DLC, assists with the Monitoring and Investigation Program, among other things. She said the work the center does is strenuous but necessary.

“I have a brother with Down syndrome and it’s always been a part of my life, so that’s why I wanted to do disability law,” Campion said. “Seeing the struggle for people with disabilities is hard and it’s important to use the law within our community to assist people with disabilities.”

Financial contributions and unifying efforts

The DLC currently has a 15-member board of trustees that helps administer goals within different parameters of the DLC.

However, due to the DLC’s limited staff and financial resources, the agency and board must determine which issue or group needs the greatest amount of attention.

According to the DLC, around 80 percent of its funding comes from the federal government. The rest comes from grants and contributions from different donors.

Laura Boswell is an attorney on the abuse and neglect team for the DLC. Boswell helps ensure that the federal protection and advocacy system is administered. But, she says areas still need improvement.

“It is a challenge to do what we have said, and stand and have our services available at no cost,” Boswell said. “It’s hard for us to target our limited resources at those who have no other means and no other option. There are those outliers that come to us who can afford legal help, but most can’t.”

Some of those who can’t afford their own legal assistance are those who fight to keep their family together — regardless of financial reasons. Boswell said it is gratifying to see her work benefiting families whose siblings could be sent to care facilities or to the Utah State Developmental Center, but are able to stay home with the help of the DLC.

She said if the center were able to receive more funding, it could hire more lawyers and staff to help an even larger amount of individuals in need of legal representation.

Boswell also said 75 percent of the agency’s clients report that the DLC is the only place they can go for assistance. Therefore, if the state were able to allocate more revenue for the DLC, and more donors were willing to contribute money, the center would be able to enhance its legal work for future clients.

“I think the biggest task is basically protecting the legal rights of people with disabilities,” Boswell said. “When you think about the almost 300,000 people in the state that have a disability, it is pretty difficult. But we still do a pretty good job with the funding that we have.”