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Disabled-rights backers protest slow responses

Holding signs and chanting against "business as usual," about a dozen disabled-rights advocates filled the lobby of a state office Thursday protesting what they perceive as unacceptably slow and ineffective case-processing procedures.

"We have some big problems," said Barbara Toomer of the Disabled Rights Action Committee.

The group gathered at the Taylorsville office of the state Office of Rehabilitation in support of Charlie Salazar, who applied for services from the agency in February. Funding for those services were approved Thursday morning, however, shortly before the group gathered at the office.

Though thankful that Salazar's problems had been resolved, the group said the problems extend beyond his individual case.

"We're here for everybody else who's in this position, who don't have someone like us to stand up or protest for them," said DRAC director Jerry Costley.

The rehabilitation agency helps disabled people enter the work force by removing barriers — both physical and cultural — to employment, training would-be employees and overseeing funding for medical care or, in Salazar's case, dental care.

"Our bottom line is employment, and trying to get people back into the workplace who are disabled," said Barry Fowler, a supervising counselor with the agency for 40 years.

DRAC charged the office has a history of closing cases prematurely, losing records and test results, failing to return phone calls and improperly training counselors.

"You're supposed to be working with us and working for us, and you're working against us," Toomer said.

Field service director Kyle Walker assured the group that he had personally taken steps to resolve the problems processing Salazar's case as soon as he became aware of them. He's also made his staff aware of a policy that clients of vacationing or absent counselors are to be directed to a supervisor rather than told they have to wait. Disabled-rights advocates say the agency has a pattern of putting people off.

"We're trying," Walker said. "We're trying our best."

Fowler admitted that the office probably did "drop the ball" in Salazar's case but assured the group that, overall, the agency has a good track record and said Utah is recognized as a leader in vocational rehabilitation.

"To come in here and think this is the rule rather than the exception is a mistake," Fowler said.

The office handles thousands of cases a year, and each counselor usually has between 120 and 160 clients at any given time, he said. "Some of you know our program really well and you know the good things we do. We do have people fall through the cracks; we do make mistakes. We're doing our best. If we didn't believe in this, we wouldn't be here."

Walker agreed to review the list of demands presented to him Thursday, and to meet with DRAC again in 30 days.