MIA on needs of disabled
MIA on needs of disabled
Advocate asks why Shirley administration is unresponsive to needs of the
By Marley Shebala
WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 27, 2007
For more than a year now, Doris Dennison, 44, has been trying to speak face
to face with President Joe Shirley Jr. - again.
The last time Dennison spoke directly with Shirley was in March 2006. He
listened to the description of the many obstacles faced by disabled
residents of the Navajo Nation, and promised to make their concerns a
priority once the election was over.
"And then nothing," she said.
Dennison, who works as an advocate for the Native American Advocacy Group
in Window Rock, pointed out that most tribal buildings lack wheelchair
access, despite tribal and federal laws requiring it.
In one instance described by officials of the judicial branch during a
budget hearing, they recalled that a family member had to carry a disabled
person in their arms to a second-floor courtroom.
The building's elevator had long since ceased to function, they said.
Doorways are narrow, many buildings lack ramps to circumvent steps, and
streets and parking lots are rough - if they're paved at all - and
sidewalks are almost non-existent.
Navajo Transit System buses are supposed to be equipped to accommodate
disabled riders, but they are not.
And less visible services, such as home care that would enable more
disabled persons to live independent lives, are not even on the radar
screens of most tribal officials, said Dennison, who was paralyzed from the
waist down by a traffic accident 20 years ago.
"I didn't start doing advocacy work until I got out of my house about 10
years ago," she said.
What got her moving was the need to find a house that was handicapped
accessible, and an attendant to provide in-home care.
Instead, Dennison said she was met with suggestions that she move into a
residential home for senior citizens. She was 24 at the time.
Not a priority
The March 2006 meeting with Shirley was very brief, and he and his staff
made it clear that all their time was taken up with getting him re-elected,
Then their attention shifted to the inauguration, one of the most lavish in
the tribe's history.
Clinton Jim, Shirley's staff assistant on disabled issues, asked the Native
American Advocacy Group to submit 15 names of people to receive invitations
to the festivities, and invited them to submit remarks to be included in
Shirley's inauguration speech, she said.
They proposed four paragraphs, including the following: "It is essential
that as we move forward we include all members of our community who have
disabilities and encourage them to take active roles in our society.
"To be true to our traditional values, we must remove the barriers that
separate our community and address the issues that keep us from living in
harmony. We must work with all individuals with disabilities to restore
harmony by improving access, respecting their choices and recognizing their
The words were intended to show Shirley's commitment to the tribe's
disabled members, but when he gave his speech, he did not include them.
Nor did anyone on the list receive an invitation to join him for the
inauguration, Dennison said.
Jim's encouragement had been a peace offering of sorts, because the
disabled advocates had expressed concern that Shirley's interest seemed to
be fading, she said. As a candidate in 2002 he had promised to meet with
them quarterly, and to make sure all his division directors attended as
He also proposed creating a new division dedicated to providing services to
disabled tribal members, which they viewed with mixed feelings.
But by the time the 2006 election came, few division higher-ups attended
those meetings, and the group's requests for help went unanswered, she
And in the months since then, there has been nothing but silence from the
Shirley administration, Dennison said. Her calls go unanswered, her letters
receive no response.
In June the Navajo Times faxed a list of written questions to Shirley
concerning Dennison's statements. In addition, the Times placed calls to
Shirley, his chief of staff Patrick Sandoval, his spokesman George Hardeen,
and Treva Roanhorse, head of the Navajo Nation's Office of Special
Education and Rehabilitation.
As of press time Wednesday, none had responded.
The Navajo Times also faxed copies of four letters that Dennison had
written to Clinton Jim, regarding the status of promises made to her group,
to Sandoval, Hardeen and Roanhorse.
The letters were dated between November 2006 and May, and referenced a
promise by Shirley to issue a directive to all his division directors to
have all their buildings and office made wheelchair accessible.
Even when a wheelchair ramp is installed, it sometimes ends in a patch of
deep gravel, as if no one thought about how someone in a wheelchair would
get past the gravel to the parking lot, said Michael Blatchford of ASSIST!
to Independence, a Tuba City advocacy group.
"You can't do it yourself," he said, "someone has to be there to roll you
Directors don't show
In her letter, Dennison also reminded Jim that Sandoval promised to direct
all division directors to attend meetings with the disabled advocates. With
the exception of Toni Miller of the Division of Social Services, none of
the division directors has consistently showed up, she stated in her
Dennison noted that her group, which includes representatives from all the
major advocacy groups serving disabled Navajos, specifically requested the
attendance of Treva Roanhorse because she's in charge of matters regarding
"She has not come to any meetings," Dennison stated to Jim.
Dennison said she continues to question why the Navajo Nation has not
enforced its laws requiring that all Navajo government buildings, including
the Navajo Housing Authority, be accessible to the disabled.
She said that concern also extends to the Navajo Transit System, which as a
federal grant recipient must meet federal laws mandating handicapped
"And those divisions and programs that provides services to the disabled
should be accessible but they tell us there's no funding," Dennison said,
"And now they're saying they don't know who is supposed to enforce laws."
Sometimes the barrier is as simple as a door with doorknob rather than an
L-shaped lever, said Dennison, holding up her arms to show hands that are
incapable of turning a doorknob.
"I always have a hard time at the president's office," Dennison said. "The
doors are too narrow and one side is always locked. I'm lucky if someone is
leaving or arriving to assist me."
Dennison said she's hoping the annual awareness walk for the Navajo
Nation's disabled, which takes place the week of Oct. 15, will once again
revive Shirley's interest.
"Seems like every so often, he loses focus and we do our walk and camp out
on his doorstep, and he comes back and say he'll work with us," she said
She said she's also hoping the Navajo Nation Council will take notice,
particularly as the walk coincides with the council's fall session.