American Indian Disability Summit: ‘To Boldly Go Where Everyone Else Has Gone Before’

Amputee Fernando Cruz, co-chairman of the summit (By Lee Allen/ARIZONA FREELANCE)

Amputee Fernando Cruz, co-chairman of the summit (By Lee Allen/ARIZONA FREELANCE)

“To Boldly Go Where Everyone Else Has Gone Before,” read the buttons of many attendees at the 8th annual American Indian Disability Summit on April 6 in Phoenix.

Optimism permeated throughout the hotel ballroom filled with conference goers, many of whom used canes, walkers and wheelchairs. The official theme of the summit was “Gathering Native Voices to Transition Individuals with Disabilities Towards Employment and Recreation.” It's mission: “to facilitate outreach, training, and technical assistance for American Indians with disabilities who reside in both urban and rural areas.”

“What we try and do is spread the word to people with disabilities that there are programs out there that can assist them in becoming more independent," said Fernando Cruz (Tohono O’odham), a Reintegration Program Coordinator and conference co-chair. "We want to offer an opportunity to tap into resources to reach a goal, providing encouragement to live a life other than basically existing in a chair."

The day got underway in traditional fashion with a presentation of colors by an Ak-Chin veterans group, a corn pollen opening prayer by Freddie Johnson of the Phoenix Indian Center, a flute blessing by Aaron White, a native language version of the national anthem by Eva Celaya, and a proclamation by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer making April 6 American Indian Disabilities Awareness Day.

The Governor’s proclamation, read in her absence by Deeda Williams of the Institute for Human Development, stated in part: “Individuals from all backgrounds and cultures are affected by life-impacting disabilities and the need for rehabilitation services…to encourage opportunities to function independently and productively…opportunities to engage in fulfilling lives, meaningful relationships, and rewarding careers—freely striving to realize their full potential without fear of physical limitations.”

Phil Pangrazio, chief executive officer of the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, an advocate organization for persons with disabilities, speaks from experience after a teenage car accident three decades ago left him a quadriplegic.

“Learning how to live with a disability is an individual process with individual choices,” he told his audience. “We have to think of the possibilities even though some may seem not-doable. If we open our minds and hearts to the concept that just about anything is possible, we’re going to do a lot better living with our disabilities.”

Pangrazio—post broken neck paralysis—has proven his point by going to school to get an education that lead to a job where he could become a productive wage earner even though returning to the job market as a disabled person once seemed a daunting task. By his count, he’s now been employed full-time for over 22 years in the workforce.

And, he says, “Although it’s a bit ‘out there,’ I realized that taking care of myself physically was also important, so I got involved in sports activities like wheelchair quadriplegic rugby. Getting involved in recreational activities can be a launching pad to other positive changes in ones life like the pursuit of an employment goal.”

Other speakers on the day-long agenda addressed preventive and remedial health service availability as well as ways for the disabled community to recognize and manage stress. “Stress equals demand and response and is a part of everyday life, and we achieve our optimal performance under a moderate level of it,” said Dr. David McIntyre, psychologist with the Phoenix Area Indian Health Office.

Identifying the four categories of stress as Emotional, Behavioral, Cognitive, and Physical, Dr. McIntyre noted that people with physical or emotional stressors had to work even harder to get themselves organized to combat their unique day-to-day challenges. “There are no easy answers to how much we can control and how much help we will need.”

Conference Master of Ceremonies Jim Warne (Oglala Lakota) of San Diego State University’s Interwork Institute addressed the thorny issue of “Vocational Rehabilitation for Tribal Members with Disabilities.”

Noting that there were currently 83 tribal vocational rehab programs serving 100 nations with funding in the range of $33 million dollars, he emphasized, “It doesn’t matter what tribe we are, we’ll all in this together working toward the ultimate outcome of vocational rehabilitation—employment.”

“...[W]hen the whole able-bodied population is hurting for work, that really impacts heavily on people with disabilities and specifically those from Indian Country. It shouldn’t be a deterrent or a negative, but the unfortunate reality is, if you have a disability or are from Indian Country, you generally are not included in the overall American system.

“Focusing as we are here on people with disabilities, Indian or non-Indian, we’re trying to remove societal barriers and reduce ignorance of both disability and culture issues, overcoming these negatives to help folks who really want to succeed to have the necessary tools for success.”