Montanan - Volume 13, Number 3
hen Molly Krueger enters the room, two boys scream her name and throw their arms around her middle. Then they run off, spilling glasses of water across the floor. A little girl rushes up to her, in need of a hug. Across the room, another girl begins to wail. At last, at cleanup time, Bachs Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 floats out over the room as the children pick up their toys, taking the edge off their shrill little voices. When the job is done, Krueger and her volunteers thank every child by name.
Molly Krueger spends eight hours a day, five days a week, with scores of small children at an emergency shelter and day-care in Missoula. Some children have behavioral problems; others experience learning, speech and hearing disabilities. Krueger and her coworkers give invaluable support to the children they serve, an exhausting, and often emotionally demanding, assignment. So who supports Krueger and people like her when it becomes "extremely difficult" to deal with these behavioral and cognitive disorders?
Ever hear of the Rural Institute?
Ask most anyone at The University of Montana about the Rural Institute on Disabilities and they would say they hadnt heard of it. According to Timm Vogelsberg, the executive director, "Were probably the most obscure group on campus."
Yet the Rural Institute is consistently one of UMs top grant recipients. Operating on a $4 million annual budget, the institute is one of more than sixty university affiliated programs in the country that research disabilities issues and apply that knowledge in communities. The institutes core funding comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; federal, state and university grants support a staff of about sixty.
So what, exactly, does the Rural Institute do? Through twenty different programs in four general areas, the institute works for and with people with disabilities. Besides training service providers, the institute assesses practical needs; provides information on financial aid and assistive technology, such as walkers or wheelchairs; and offers programs on parenting. It also publishes research findings and newsletters, sponsors seminars and provides information on relevant legislation.
Ted Maloney, director of the institutes Exemplary Services, Outreach & Technical Assistance branch, currently oversees seven programs, including training programs for those who work with the elderly and for young adults making the transition from high school to the community or to advanced education. Three programs provide services for children. The Vietnam Veterans Childrens Assistance Program helps families affected by Agent Orange find financial aid and medical assistance. The Child Care Plus program trains day-care providers serving children with disabilities. Family Child Care Choices helps service providers define their communities needs for child care.
Krueger, a student of the Child Care Plus program, says the institute has given her skills for helping children with severe learning and cognitive disabilities, as well as emotional support. Krueger says she can call her instructor at all hours for help and the staff is willing to "do whatever it takes" to provide services for children in need.
Tom Seekins, director of research and evaluation, oversees five programs, including the Research and Training Center on Rural Rehabilitation, one of forty-five in the country. The center addresses rehabilitation issues-including housing, transportation, employment, health and medicine-for people with disabilities in rural communities. (All of Montana is considered rural.) Seekins also oversees a rural transportation project, a study of American Indian disability policy, a health information and screening program for senior citizens and a wellness program for people with spinal cord injuries.
Seekins says his programs goals are in keeping with the institutes philosophy of "working together to make the environment more friendly and healthy for all." He says many people with disabilities see their environment, not their disability, as a problem.
Peter Leech echoes these words. Leech is director of the Institutes MonTECH project, responsible for making sure people with disabilities have access to devices that promote independence, such as wheelchairs, walkers and hearing aids.
"The world keeps building its barriers when in fact theres a lot of people with disabilities," Leech says. "The attitude is that the people with disabilities have to cope, but really the world has to stop building barriers and acknowledge that were part of society."
Leech knows what hes talking about. He has used a wheelchair since polio left him without the use of his legs. He has spent most of his life "mobilizing resources to live independently" and learning "how to manage politically" in a world of barriers.
Leech and Seekins say consumer products and services have changed in recent years to accomodate people with disabilities. Doorways have been widened for wheelchairs, and public phones have been modified for the speech and hearing impaired. Hoteliers are also working to make their places welcoming-in the past, people in wheelchairs often had to enter through the service door in the back.
"We want to move the disability issue out of a segregated area into the bigger systems, like housing and transportation, so they consider people with disabilities," Seekins says.
To complement the institutes advocacy efforts, the interdisciplinary training unit, directed by Sue Forest, offers nine programs in research, training, education and support services for those who work with or want to learn about people with disabilities. For example, the unit teaches social workers how to provide in-home support for infants and toddlers and evaluates children involved in custody negotiations.
"Montana has one of the best service delivery systems in the country for early intervention," says Forest, who has worked in states where services were available only in urban areas and only after wading through a tangled bureaucracy.
Perhaps Montana is more accessible to people with disabilities because of the institutes course work, a human and family development minor that fits hand in glove with UM programs, such as psychology, social work, physical therapy and interpersonal communications. This year, twenty students will graduate with degrees that focus on early intervention training. Some of these students will end up in schools, public health agencies or Headstart programs. Many of these students are also Montanans and about 98 percent of them stay in Montana, taking what theyve learned back to their communities.
Phil Mattheis, the institutes newest staff member, is the only pediatrician in western Montana specializing in developmental disabilities. Mattheis sees patients as well as providing in-service training for doctors and others around the state with an interest in childrens disabilities. Despite the institutes university affiliation, the staff is eager to point out that the institute is not an ivory tower, where research findings gather dust on the shelf. Most of its programs have direct applications in communities in Montana and around the nation. "Our mission is to provide training, aid and services and to get the word out about our findings," says Forest.
"Their solutions to problems are realistic," Krueger says of the institute. For example, she had a three-year-old boy in her class, partially paralyzed from a stroke, who was unable to pull his pants down in time to go to the bathroom. Her instructor suggested attaching elastic loops to the waistband of the boys pants. It worked. "My instructors are really good at coming up with resourceful ways of solving problems," Krueger says. "It really seems to be one of their strong points."