New Disability Rights Iowa director sees herself as a ‘coalition builder’

By: - August 6, 2021 4:02 pm

The new executive director of Disability Rights Iowa says one of the challenges she faces in her job is that relatively few Iowans see themselves as disabled. (Photo courtesy of Disability Rights Iowa)

The new executive director of Disability Rights Iowa says one of the challenges she faces in her job is that relatively few Iowans see themselves as disabled.

Two months ago, Catherine Johnson replaced Jane Hudson as the head of the federally funded, privately run organization dedicated to helping Iowans with disabilities. Although she grew up in Iowa, Johnson spent the past 17 years working on disability issues in neighboring Kansas. Now, she’s working on familiarizing herself with the players and issues within Iowa’s disability community.

“There is one thing that struck me pretty much immediately with regard to Iowa,” she said, “and that is the percentage of people in Iowa who identify as being a person with a disability.”

Nationally, she said, about 26% of the population view themselves as having some form of disability. But in Iowa, it’s only about 11%, and that’s not exactly cause for celebration, she said.

“One of the things I am really interested in doing in my new role at Disability Rights Iowa is, first off, staying true to our mission which is protecting and advancing the rights of Iowans with disabilities. But then, within that, there’s this job of showing and educating Iowans what we mean when we talk about disabilities.”

She said the smaller percentage in Iowa is a concern given the fact that the disability rights community “has come together over the past 31 years, since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to be a united force when it comes to advocacy on different issues. Iowans are much stronger in doing that when there are 26% of us standing together and addressing these different issues within the community.”

The fact that so few Iowans acknowledge having a disability may speak to their independent character, Johnson said, but it might also mean that Iowans aren’t benefitting from assistance, protection and opportunities available to them.

“When you have a disability, you are entitled to federal and state protections from discrimination based on that disability,” she said. “Now, it’s one thing to say, ‘I am not going to identify as having a disability.’ That is your right since this is a voluntary identification. But it’s another thing to just not know and not be aware you’re entitled to this protection.”

She said people with a mental health diagnosis, in particular, are often unaware that the ADA protects them from discrimination in employment, government services and public accommodations.

“So this is something I am looking at pretty closely because it affects the number of people we can help, and I want DRI to provide resources and support and legal advocacy for every single person that we can possibly can,” she said.

In an effort to get a better handle on issues facing Iowans, and to also spread the word about DRI’s mission, Johnson’s planning to travel the state and participate in a series of forums.

“One thing that I know is affecting the disability community – because it’s affecting everyone – is COVID-19,” she said. “Is our community able to access the vaccines if they want to? Are there any barriers to access to vaccines and to vaccine clinics?”

Pandemic acclimates employers to working from home

The pandemic, she said, may have one positive effect on Iowans with disabilities: Employers who once had a hard time visualizing and agreeing to remote working arrangements are now accustomed to it, and some are fully embracing it.

“There is now this global, societal understanding that people can work remotely these days,” she said. “And that creates a greater opportunity for individuals with disabilities to engage in competitive employment.”

In addition to people with physical limitations, Iowans with mental health disabilities and cognitive disabilities can function better and be more productive when working from remote locations, she said.

Johnson calls herself a ‘coalition builder’

At times, DRI has found itself squarely at odds with the State of Iowa and, in particular, the Iowa Department of Human Services. DRI has successfully sued the state more than once to force changes in the way Iowa serves disabled individuals in DHS-run care facilities.

Last year, DRI prevailed in a federal lawsuit against the state of Iowa over its treatment of youth housed at the Boys State Training School in Eldora. U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose held the state liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the school, which houses troubled youth ordered there by the courts.

In her decision, the judge said the school provided inadequate mental health care, misused solitary confinement, and routinely deployed what Rose called a “torture” device — a restraint known as the “wrap,” which holds children immobile.

Former DRI executive director Sylvia Piper was a fierce and frequent critic of some state officials, while her successor, Hudson, appeared to favor a less confrontational – but arguably no less effective – approach to conflict resolution once she took over in 2012.

Johnson said she sees herself as a “coalition builder” who can build on Hudson’s legacy. “Jane just created a phenomenal foundation for what I want to do in building new partnerships,” she said, noting that some people in the disability community remain marginalized by virtue of where they live.

“There are huge sections of our state that, my guess is, very few people go to provide services. I’m thinking of the corners of our state, and I want to make sure we are available to the folks living there.”

Johnson received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Iowa. She has worked as the assistant dean of students for the St. Louis University School of Law, served as the director of Student Legal Services at University of Iowa, and worked as a disability rights attorney at the Disability Rights Center of Kansas.

Before being named the executive director of DRI, she was the director of the ADA Resource Center for Equity and Accessibility at the University of Kansas.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.