Unsung heroes help disabled access their rights

Story and photo by MICHELLE SCHMITT

Sitting in her window office at the Community Legal Center located in the minority-rich northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City, Janis Tetro sees herself as a woman on the front lines in the fight for fairness of the disabled at the Disability Law Center (DLC). A World War II propaganda poster of a woman wearing a red bandana hangs on the wall behind Tetro, proclaiming “We Can Do It!”

Community Legal Center, located at 205 N. 400 West.

The Short Term Assessment Team, or STAT, is a division of DLC that responds to incoming calls from disabled persons in need of guidance and direction.

“We’re one of the few [organizations] left who still try to have live people answering the phones, so we try to get to them as quickly as we can,” Tetro said.

When Tetro, a self-advocacy expert and self-proclaimed “STAT lady,” started working for DLC 23 years ago, she had no idea her influence would change the way disabled individuals access their rights.

Tetro and her team developed a computer system that allows them to quickly access all available avenues that a disabled person can pursue in search for assistance in a world that may not cater to their unique needs. The STAT team is able to get answers rapidly for those who call; questions range from legal advice to building access, to weatherization and heating help. At the inception of STAT staff were simply jotting information on 3-by-5 cards, a method that has since advanced to the intricate computer system.

Now every protection advocacy agency across the country has adopted this system, something that Tetro said “was pretty cool.”

STAT is “the most critical link that we have to the disabled community,” said Eric Mitchell, a spokesman with DLC. Mitchell praised STAT for the division’s ability to quickly and accurately field calls and assist distressed individuals.

Tetro is proud of the accomplishments STAT has made. The division has been around for 23 years and has had to adjust to match the progressing times.

“In the beginning we only did little issues,” she said. “We had to inform people that they do have rights, and over the years the people have become more sophisticated on what their rights are. Now we get calls from people who know they have rights,” but just need to know how to address a situation.

Tetro told the story of a man with back problems who gets around on a Segway, per doctor’s orders. While doing so at a Utah college, a campus police officer told the young man that Segways were not permitted on campus. He called Tetro’s team, whose immediate action quickly got him back on campus with no further interruptions.

Tetro said DLC trains disabled individuals about what they are entitled to. The center visits mental health houses, talks to architects about making buildings handicap accessible and provides school training to teachers and officials.

The biggest challenge for Tetro and the STAT is the sheer number of calls. “We get around 5,000 calls a year and we really want to get every one of them individual attention,” Tetro said.

The busiest times of year are during the holidays, when many feel sad and lonely, and at the start of the school year, Tetro said.

Education issues are largely left in the hands of DLC special education team leader Adina Zahradnitova, who works closely with schools to monitor that they are obeying the laws that protect disabled students.

Zahradnitova told the story of a young boy who got shuffled in the system so much that he ended up in the hospital. She and her team stepped in.

It was the school’s responsibility to provide an assessment for a 7-year-old student, a boy believed to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and they failed to do so, Zahradnitova said. When the child’s behavior escalated, the school rushed him to the emergency room; later he was moved to the psychiatric ward at Primary Children’s Hospital. The family received a $17,000 hospital bill and the school accepted no responsibility. The issue is ongoing and DLC is working on behalf of the family. The DLC’s argument is that the boy has the right, under the law, to a free education and it was the school’s job to provide a timely assessment. Instead, the school waited and did not know how to handle the child. Zahradnitova says the family should not have to pay the substantial medical bill. Instead, she says the school should have to since it failed to perform a timely assessment on the boy.

The issue may be handled through the courts, but Zahradnitova hopes to resolve the matter privately. Mitchell said that DLC prefers to handle matters quickly and informally. Litigation takes a lot of time and therefore it is the “tool of last resort.” That is why STAT is so important.

“People walk in literally off the streets,” Mitchell said. “[STAT] is the front line, they provide short term assistance to people and prepare things that need to be forwarded.”

Zahradnitova lauded STAT as a “critical part of the agency,” one that “functions as a well-oiled machine.” Employees provide one-on-one advocacy, offer necessary referrals and work closely with landlords and school districts. She said Tetro has empowered both her team and disabled individuals by training and educating them.

People call who are “totally in crisis,” Tetro said. “They’re kind of mad at the whole world because they haven’t found any help. If we can’t help we have a whole program set up on the computer of agencies that may be able to help [and] we can transfer their calls right over.”

But probably one of the easiest and most effective things that STAT offers is a person to listen. Tetro said many people who call are relieved to have someone to talk to, willing and ready to help.