Nightmare Come True: Police Training, Autism, and Down SyndromePosted: September 20, 2013
Sometimes I spend time worrying about my infant son’s future. My son with Down syndrome. My son with a disability. My son, a human being.
Among the things I worry about is that the world will see him as nothing but a problem. An anomaly, a special circumstance, some thing to be “handled” and “managed”. I worry that people will take one look at him and hold him up to a stereotype, and he’ll never have a chance to be fully human. If he matches the stereotype, everything he says or does will be a foregone conclusion. If he deviates from the stereotype, he’ll be nothing but an even greater abnormality.
My fears became reality today.
I read a story about police training in Maryland and my stomach heaved. No exaggeration. I actually feel sick right now. Click here for the story.
Now look at this shirt:
The shirt was created by Laurie Reyes, who teaches autism awareness trainings for police departments in the state of Maryland.
“The classes help officers deal with people with issues like traumatic brain injuries to out-of-control adolescents to hording (sic) disorders, and include tools to respond to a host of mental illness issues and developmental and intellectual disabilities.” In the video, one can watch a therapist role play an imaginary situation as having an intellectual disability while officers try to de-escalate the situation.
I’m not even sure why one training lumps together people with traumatic brain injuries, adolescents, mental illness and disability other than they could all be “different”. Seems problematic, as every person will get caught up in that difference net at some point or another. But, let’s start at the most important issue here…
It is not an individual’s responsibility to wear or show evidence of his or her diagnosis in order to remain safe and retain their basic civil rights.
I understand the logic. What if my child wanders off? What if no one stops my child to find out why he or she is alone? What if my child is non-verbal and can’t communicate with the police? What if the police misinterpret some behavior, and injury or death ensues?
Here’s the thing: Basic civil rights should have no access requirement. Period, end of story. In my opinion, that includes wearing a shirt or flashing an “I’m disabled” hand signal.
Let’s talk specifics. First, the shirt.
In a time when the disability community is fighting for more inclusion, it disturbs me to no end that these neon shirts are out in the world perpetuating the idea that all autistic children are, by virtue of their diagnosis, not safe to be in public alone. Children should not be wandering in public by themselves, period. I’d hope that the average person who saw any child wandering would stop to help. I don’t have a child with autism, but the point that any child is safe enough to be in public by themselves seems highly individual and situation specific. At what age can a child stop wearing the shirt? What happens to the children who don’t wear a shirt, can they not expect the same level of critical thought and eye towards safety from the police as their neon shirt wearing cohorts? In the meantime, I worry that the message is clear: AUTISM = UNSAFE. Blanket generalizations about behaviors (like wandering) can be very harmful.
I also have an issue with labeling a child’s disability in general. Autism exists on a spectrum. Who determines who should wear the neon shirt? What happens to anyone who simply acts out of the expected “norm”? Can the police later say that they failed to properly identify themselves and therefore are responsible for their own demise? Who is the arbiter of “normal” behavior? I understand the need to address wandering, but having police department hand out bright neon shirts raises far more issues than it solves problems.
Then, the hand signal. Here, again, I am very worried, and frankly, confused. After seeing a hand signal to indicate disability, what specific change tactical change in the police is the hand signal designed to elicit? If it means that the police will then take extra care, extra scrutiny, extra attention to the everyone’s safety, well, isn’t that what the police are supposed to do for everyone? If it means that the police will make concessions and fail to enforce the law, then I am not interested. I want my son fully included in society, rules and all. Just because he has a disability does not mean I expect “special treatment”. Humane treatment? Yes. Living outside the law? No.
I also am concerned with what happens legally in these situations. If the person is scared or confused and doesn’t do the hand signal, are the police no longer liable for any injury or death caused by their actions? If an autistic child takes off the horrid neon shirt (completely understandable) and happens to wander off and get injured despite all other reasonable safeguards put in place, then are the parents negligent? What if the parents simply do not agree with this kind of public labeling of their child’s diagnosis?
Lastly, what is to stop someone from misusing the hand signal? Perhaps because I am the wife of a criminal defense lawyer, but such an abuse is not beyond my imagination.
The kind of training described in the story is exactly what I do NOT want to result from Ethan Saylor’s death. It is, in fact, my worst nightmare.
I cannot adequately describe how offensive it was for me to watch a therapist pretend to be a person with an intellectual disability.
As I watched the video, I was highly uncomfortable with the therapist’s obvious manipulation of her voice while she yelled about hamburgers and then started spitting at the officers. Why she thinks that yelling about hamburgers and spitting is a portrayal of intellectual disability in particular, I cannot understand. Am I to understand that all people with intellectual disabilities will yell and spit upon getting upset? I don’t know if I could have created a more dehumanizing caricature of a person if I tried. This is Stigmatization 101.
Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but why not bring in an actual advocate who has an intellectual disability? It looks like the shirts were created with the help of Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy group. I know that the group has been criticized for not including the self-advocate voice enough in its work, I wonder if the training had any self-advocate input. From the looks of that re-enactment, I doubt it.
I couldn’t tell in the short video but I am wary of what “facts” this training presents. My worst fear is that a training including Down syndrome will be a checklist of “symptoms” that creates a false impression of Down syndrome (or any other disability, for that matter) which will do more harm than good. There is no “correct” image of Down syndrome, after all. It is a syndrome. Do people with Down syndrome not make eye contact, or hug everyone? Do they like being touched or not? Are they all non-verbal? The potential for stereotyping here is high.
Every day, I read stories about women who are pressured to terminate their pregnancies because they will be unintelligent burdens with poor health. Every day, I read stories about parents fighting to have their children included in general education settings because they can’t hack it. Adults with disabilities have difficulties finding employment, fully participating in society, and getting equal medical care. All of these injustices are, in part, results of false and stigmatizing portrayals of people with disabilities.
Officer Scott Davis, a Montgomery County police officer who leads the training, had this to say:
“This is an epidemic, in my view, and I think society does not view a mental health emergency as a medical emergency and it is. In my view of what we see every day on the street, somebody who is in psychosis, somebody who is in a psychiatric emergency, it’s just as dangerous as somebody who’s having a stroke or a heart attack. And we need to change the stigma of mental illness and let people on the street know that hey, this is just as serious.”
These three sentences portray a depth of misunderstanding that is hard to even tackle. Disability and mental illness are not the same. Mental health emergencies are not categorically equal to medical emergencies. An autistic (or any other person with a diagnosis) person who happens to be upset is not automatically having a “psychiatric emergency”. Davis’s remarks smack of privilege; I doubt he’d consider himself as having a psychiatric emergency if he were very upset and confused, but rather just a human being who is upset. I fail to see how he is “changing the stigma of mental illness” with his statement. In fact, with those three sentences, I saw only that Davis was increasing such stigma.
Lastly, I was downright outraged by what Davis had to say about the Ethan Saylor case. He is quoted as saying the officers did “everything right”, and that additional training would be of benefit. I am baffled at how he comes to such a conclusion from simply talking to the officers while there has been no independent investigation. Saylor’s throat was crushed. I simply cannot see how he can absolve the three deputies of wrongdoing with such limited information. I also find it predictable that Davis’s solution to the issue is more training, which happens to be his livelihood. Frederick County seems to have an issue with its department’s use of force. Bad cops need accountability, not additional training.
Training as the potential to do real harm.
My biggest frustration around police training on disability is that many (like Scott Davis) seem to espouse “the more the better”. I strongly disagree here. The training could become a tool of stigmatization and marginalization despite its best intentions. This is not to mention that police officers have very long training hours. I’d hope they would get effective, valuable training. If the two minutes I saw were representative of the entire training, then those officers are wasting their valuable time.
Can disability awareness training be valuable? Absolutely yes. But this has gone too far. This is my worst nightmare. I could write so much more but must stop. I keep hoping I misinterpreted the story, but what I saw in those two minutes were giant steps backward for disability rights.