Community Development by American Indian Tribes: Five Case Studies of Establishing Policy for Tribal Members with Disabilities

Article excerpt


The Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA) has the potential to improve the lives of all Americans with disabilities. Yet, American Indians with disabilities living on tribal lands are specifically excluded from its requirements. In this research we used participatory action research to describe an effective self-directed process for considering disability-related legislative and policy issues. Steps included identifying key leadership contacts, seeking tribal authorization, holding focus groups, and developing and implementing policy recommendations. Case studies reported policy and program changes consistent with the ADA but respectful of tribal culture and sovereignty. The history between the Indian nations and the United States, the demography of disability among American Indians, and tribal cultural views about disability were examined. Relevant to the practice of community development, any community, of any size, might use this universally applicable method to review problems and develop solutions that meet its unique circumstances.



The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (42 U.S.C.A. [section] 12101 et. seq.) has the potential to improve the lives of all people with disabilities in the United States. Yet, American Indians with disabilities living on tribal lands may not benefit because the law specifically excludes Indian tribes from its requirements (Bazan, 1991).

In analyzing the potential application of the ADA, Bazan concludes, "... its ultimate resolution will rest in the hands of the courts." This conclusion assumes that tribes do not want, will not voluntarily accept, and would not implement the principles of the ADA. Based on a legal model, it extends the centuries-long relationship of judicial conflict and confrontation between the federal government and sovereign Indian nations.

In truth, tribes are sovereign nations of unified communities, bound by ties of blood, place, culture, and mutual interests. Tribal leaders and members care deeply about the character of their communities and their quality of life. Each tribe is committed to preserving its sovereignty, unique character, and culture. From a tribal perspective, the ADA may present both attractive opportunities and potential conflicts. Finally, tribal members, with and without disabilities, are best suited to weigh the ADA's merits and to accept, reject, or modify them to best fit their communities.

This paper describes the Tribal Disability Actualization Process (TDAP), which was used in considering disability legislative and policy issues. The TDAP is based on descriptions of culturally appropriate tribal deliberation processes (Brown, 1986), the application of participatory action research involving people with disabilities (Seekins, Smith, McCleary, Clay, & Walsh, 1991), and values and principles of community development practice (Christenson & Robinson, 1994; Hustedde, 1998). While the TDAP was endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians (1994), the study of this process is formative in nature. Little research has been conducted in either disability or community development on reservations. Further, the tribes themselves are just beginning to consider making formal legislative changes to benefit their members with disabilities.

The process requires context-shaped procedures in which each individual tribe's unique cultural needs and concerns are addressed. In these early developmental stages, there is considerable variation in their understanding and readiness to move ahead.

Finally, strict scientific control as a methodology for evaluation is not appropriate for this model. The process involves individuals interested in developing tribal disability policies (e.g., service providers, tribal government and departmental personnel, and people with disabilities), and there is no way to measure their efforts against a control group on the same reservation. …


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