Navajos with Disabilities: Access to buildings means access to services

 Gallup Independent Weekend November 13-14, 2021

Navajos With Disabilities: Access to buildings means access to services
Marley Shebala Dine’ Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz.– Navajo individuals with disabilities feel like children abandoned by their parents, Hoskie Benally, spokesperson for the Navajos with Disabilities said at a press conference in front of the Navajo Nation Council Wednesday. Benally said he was talking about a teaching in the Blessing Way ceremony that involved a time when Navajo parents decided to place their children with disabilities in one encampment, near a home, where water, food, bedding and other basic needs would be provided. But, he said, the water, food, bedding, and other basic needs of the disabled children were placed at the doorway, which made bring into their encampment. Benally said that after some time passed, a young Navajo man was seen helping the children, and then one day, the children and the young man began walking away. The young man had to carry some of the children, he added.

Children taken away The parents had a man follow the children and young man to a pond, where the children began playing in the mud, Benally said. This went on for a few more days, but then one day, the man saw some images with feathers and talk and play with the children. He said the man then saw a cloud come down, and lifted up the spiritual beings, children and    young man. Benally said the energy from the cloud knocked the man over. The man went to the pond where he found ceremonial objects of mud that the children made, such as bowls, pipes, and miniature horses, sheep, donkeys, and other animals, and left behind to be placed in medicine pouches.

He said the people consulted a crystal gazer, who told them that the young man was a spiritual being called Early Dawn Boy, who the spiritual beings sent to take care of the children since the parents and people were not taking care of them.

“We’re like those children “

Benally said the parents and people were also told that at dawn, they will hear the chirping of a bird to remind them that they are supposed to take care of the children and one another.

We’re like those children, he emphasized. “We’re just put in a place. Nobody bothers us. Nobody looks in on us. Nobody asks us what our needs are. And that’s the way we feel. We feel we always been put on the back burner and we have a lot of needs out there.”

Benally is the president of the Navajo Nation Advisory Council on Disabilities, and the Community and Government Liaison for the Native American Disability Law Center, which is based in Farmington. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology form BYU and was the Director of a Youth Center that integrated Navajo Culture inter Western based mental health treatment.

Benally recalled that in 2011 and 2017, the Law Center conducted a survey of 2,000 family members and service providers, which identified five priorities. The top priority was accessibility to public buildings, he said. They can’t get into Navajo Nation buildings to obtain services.

Benally said that assessment prompted an assessment of 15 public buildings in Navajo Nation’s five agencies, and found unpaved, rocky parking lots that individuals with wheelchairs and canes cannot maneuver over, doors too heavy to open, sidewalks higher than parking lot surface, and when you finally get into the building, you cannot get your wheelchair inside.

And if you have to use the bathroom, there a door knob that individuals with disabilities cannot turn, there are no grab bars, sink and mirrors are too high, and sometimes the bathroom floor is lower than the hallway floor, he noted.

Eleven years later, nothing Benally said sadly. No changes. That’s why we’re here today. He recalled that in 1979, 41 years ago, the Navajo Nation passed an affirmative action plan that mandated that all public buildings be accessible and that there be employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

In 2018, the Council passed the Civil Rights for Navajos with Disabilities Law, which mandated that public buildings be accessible for services, Benally said if we cannot get into the building, we cannot access services.

He said Navajo Council Delegate Eugene Tso worked on holding the Navajo Nation Government administration responsible for not implementing the Nation’s public building accessibility laws by having the council approve a Condition of Appropriation in the Navajo Government’s 2021 operating budget, but noting happened.

He said Delegate Tso had a similar COA approved by the Council in 2022 Navajo Government operating budget and President Jonathan Nez line-item vetoed it. This is where we are at Benally emphasized. We have been trying to work with the President’s Office. He said that when the Council approved the 2022 budget for accessible public buildings, Tso asked Nez for a meeting on how the Nez-Lizer Administration could begin moving forward the COA.

Benally said Tsoe sent two letters to Nez, who never replied, and so Tso asked Nez during Nez’s presentation of the State of the Navajo Nation Address during the Spring Session in April about the letters.

Nez informed Tso that he never seen the letters, and to resend the meeting invitation, which Tso emailed Nez on April 19 and 20 he recalled. Benally said Nez finally responded with at Thank you for reminding me. Nez issued a news release Wednesday night that did not address why he had not met with Tso and Benally, or that he would meet with them.

Nez thanked Benally for his leadership and the concerns to the members of the council and the executive branch. As leaders, it is our responsibility to work together to address these issues. Nez stated in his news release Last week Vice President Lizer and I signed a resolution into law approving $260,000 for new vehicles to provide transportation services for Navajo people with developmental disabilities. That’s one example of working together to support our people.

Nez also state that the Council approved numerous conditions of appropriations in the 2022 budget, including one to the Executive Branch to address access to public buildings for disabled individuals, a critical need that the executive branch continues to work on dating back many years.

He stated the Condition of Appropriation was line item vetoed because the directive was not supported with additional funding and because the Division of General Services is already working to increase access to facilities.

Nez said there is funding in the 2022 budget for a comprehensive facilities and buildings assessment and evaluation. Access to public facilities, housing, health care needs, and other services are in need of improvement here on the Navajo Nation and across the country he stated. The American Rescue Plan Acts funds provide us with the opportunity to address some of those needs and create long-term solutions for all of our Navajo people, including those are disabled.