Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Law enforcement needs better understanding of disabled people

Mike Ervin
MCT Forum

Law-enforcement personnel need more training about how to interact with persons with disabilities.

The videotape of a quadriplegic man being dumped from his wheelchair by a sheriff's deputy while in custody in Florida has stirred outrage and has led to the unpaid suspension of the deputy. For the 1.6 million people like me who use wheelchairs, the incident is particularly galling.

But here's another recent case that didn't get as much attention: In November, police in Wichita, Kan., entered a home in response to a report that gunshots were heard. A black man emerged from the bathroom wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist. Police ordered him to show his hands and when he did not comply, he was tasered.

The call was a false alarm, and the man, Donnell Williams, was hard of hearing and not wearing his hearing aids. Williams said he didn't comply with police orders because he couldn't hear what they were saying.

It's not hard to find stories about police who brutalize people with disabilities. And the Florida case seems to go well beyond a lack of sensitivity training. It appears to be a pure and simple case of the meanspirited abuse of power.

But once justice is done in this instance, the larger questions still remain.

Are police officers well trained to recognize the behaviors and body language associated with specific disabilities? Do they have readily available sign language interpreters? Are their vehicles and facilities wheelchair accessible? Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act hold law-enforcement entities responsible for ensuring that people with disabilities are treated fairly in encounters with police.

But such laws are enforced only through vigilance.

People with disabilities have encounters with police every day. And if police chiefs don't know or care enough to ensure officers treat us with due respect, incidents like this will happen again. But they might not get captured on video.

Mike Ervin is a disability-rights activist with ADAPT (www.adapt.org). He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Contact him at pmproj@progressive.org.

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