OPINION: Helping police understand people with disabilities

A concern of mine is to either be driving or riding with someone and getting pulled over by a police officer who hasn’t been properly trained on how to communicate and deal with a person who has a disability.

First, let me commend all members of law enforcement, because I know they work very hard keeping our city safe. Truly, law enforcement officers have a very dangerous job and I appreciate their hard work.

What got me all hyped up over this situation is reading stories such as the one about an Ohio man who was pulled over and arrested for speeding. Turned out, he couldn’t pass the sobriety test because of his disability, which was autism. Or the one about the California man whose sister told police he suffered from mental illness, but was shot several times by the police and died. There are many more stories such as these happening all across the United States, and it’s very sad. Life is hard enough.

By no means should the law give anyone a free pass when he or she is doing something wrong — disabilities or not. If someone does the crime, he or she must be held accountable. But I often wonder if law enforcement officers receive enough disability training. Do they actually have to interact with the people? You’ll never truly understand our population until you meet us one-on-one. Not all disabilities are the same.

Some people require accommodations. If you ask me to get out of my van, I can, but it’s going to take a little extra time and assistance. I do not want to be afraid that I may be pulled out of my van because I’m taking too long to respond to an officer’s request. I also don’t want to put the person I may be with in jeopardy for trying to assist me.

Are there any specialists on the enforcement staff who been taught to specifically interact with people with disabilities? If not, why not? There are specialists for everything else.

I have slurred speech and involuntary hand and arm movements because of my Cerebral Palsy. If you are not aware of this, there’s a possibility you might think I was drunk. Believe or not, I have gotten that assumption from people a few times before and I usually tell people, “If I were drunk, I would be talking a whole better and even attempting to try to walk!”

With this being a major issue in the disability community, I’m happy to hear that Gov. John Kasich has signed House Bill 115. This bill will help law enforcement better communicate with people with disabilities. Police officers would check a special data base called LEADS (Law Enforcement Agencies Data System) and if the person’s name and disability information is in the system, they will know how to communicate with them effectively.

Of course, LEADS is strictly voluntary. If a person chooses not to disclose their disability, that’s their right. This is just a safety net for those of us who want to participate.

This is a touchy subject but at the end of the day, it’s a big issue that needs to be addressed. I and a lot of other people hope this new program will help law enforcement officers better communicate with people with disabilities. Awareness is key.

Shari Cooper is a regular contributor.

You’ll never truly understand our population until you meet us one-on-one. Not all disabilities are the same.

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