For seven years, the Native American Disability Law Center has been working with the Navajo Nation, the nation’s largest Native American reservation, to establish basic adult protection measures for people with disabilities.
Though the Navajo Nation has statutes providing protections for children with disabilities and the elderly, it has no regulations in its legal framework providing safeguards for adults with disabilities from abuse and neglect. As a semiautonomous nation, the Navajo Nation is not affected by most state and federal laws.
Similarly, the process of providing services for Native Americans with disabilities is also more complicated than with people living in other jurisdictions, especially because many of the service programs for the reservations are contracted out.
“You get a dynamic where multiple people say it’s not our responsibility,” said Therese Yanan, co-director of program services at the Native American Disability Law Center. “Services can be delayed while people are trying to figure out how to deliver which services.”
These challenges are just a few of the unique issues the lawyers and advocates regularly engage at the Native American Disability Law Center.
The center, established in 1991 as the Native American Protection and Advocacy, was originally located in Navajo Nation as a program of the Legal Services Corporation. In 2005, it became a separate nonprofit.
The center has two main offices, in Farmington, New Mexico and in Gallup, New Mexico. Though most of its calls come from the Navajo Nation, an area about the size of West Virginia, it sometimes receives calls from Native Americans nationwide, whom they direct to various protection and advocacy organizations and other service providers.
Outreach efforts to Native Americans is often especially challenging for the center because of the myriad cultural and language issues that arise between Native American and non-Native American individuals, as well as between people from the different reservations.
“With all the language differences, there’s sometimes really not any communication happening,” she said.
In recent years, the center has been involved in multiple lawsuits with the Navajo Nation, involving issues such as due process in vocational rehab and other discrimination cases. Housing issues are also prevalent.
“Although New Mexico has ended its large scale institutions, institutional issues remain on the Navajo Nation, where the homeless rate is sometimes as high as 45 to 50 percent,” Yanan said.
The Native American Disability Law Center is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.