Disability Rights Ohio breaks down barriers

Bob Vitale
Disability Rights Ohio Executive Director Kerstin Sjoberg

A health care facility in Cincinnati told an employee she had to keep her service dog on a leash, something her paralysis made impossible. She lost her job after the dog was banned.

A high school student in Summit County spent her days in a classroom by herself because her autism presented a communications challenge.

A Dayton shopping mall designated a bus stop almost two football fields away from its nearest entrance. No sidewalk meant people using wheelchairs had to negotiate an obstacle course on their way inside.

Across the state, people turn to Columbus-based Disability Rights Ohio when barriers block access to jobs, schooling, public accommodations and services. The nonprofit group is among a nationwide network of government-designated organizations set up to protect and advocate for Americans with disabilities.

We're here to help you stay in touch with what's going on out there. Read our latest reporting on the coronavirus response here.

That mission includes taking state agencies and private entities to court. As part of its federal and state designations, Disability Rights Ohio inspects facilities that serve people with disabilities and investigates allegations of abuse or neglect.

But it also employs less confrontational ways of effecting change.

“It’s not always completely adversarial,” says Kerstin Sjoberg, who became executive director in March after 11 years with the organization. “Sometimes we can bring a problem to someone’s attention and they’ll fix it. But when the barriers in the system are so ingrained, that’s when it requires things like a class action.”

Sjoberg, a lawyer, says she wants people to feel empowered to demand their rights. But she understands why they sometimes find that difficult.

“When you’re dependent on, whether it’s a private person or a public agency or a service provider for care, it creates vulnerabilities,” she says. “Maybe you’re afraid to complain because you’ll lose your services. Maybe you like the person who’s helping you and you don’t want to get them into trouble.”

Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.

Jason Johnson and his wife were told by the Warren Local School District that their daughter Lakia, who has Down syndrome, could not join a traditional kindergarten classroom.They joined a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Education that was recently settled.

For 15 years—Lakia is now 21—Disability Rights Ohio helped with school officials, and the district has become much more amenable—“it also was an education for them,” Johnson says. Lakia has flourished. She was a member of the homecoming court a few years ago.

In Cincinnati, a complaint filed in U.S. District Court motivated a rethinking of the service dog’s ban, and the woman returned to work.

In Dayton, a federal lawsuit is pending against owners of the Dayton Mall and several retail tenants.

Bob Vitale is a freelance writer.

Disability Rights Ohio

200 Civic Center Drive, Suite 300, Columbus, 43215

Mission: To advocate for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities in Ohio.

Executive director: Kerstin Sjoberg

Employees: 63

Revenue: $5.3 million (2019)