Fostering Dialogue Between People with Disabilities and Law Enforcement to Improve First-Responder Outcomes

By Jonathon Rondeau

In 2003, while working as a camp director for a local organization, I was fortunate to meet Ethan Saylor, then 16, a young man with Down syndrome and his mom, Patti, a nurse. I continued to maintain a relationship with the family ever since. I was saddened to learn the news on January 12, 2013, that Ethan, at age 26, had died tragically while being removed and restrained by Frederick County police officers at a movie theater. The turn of events ignited local and state leaders to review and develop better training and relationship-building programs for officers when dealing with people with developmental disabilities. By 2016, The Ethan Saylor Alliance was created and signed into Maryland law. Its goal is to create opportunities for self-advocates to play a role in educating the community about appropriate and effective interactions with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).

I’m at an advantage in knowing how to engage and interact with people with I/DD because I’ve personally worked with and alongside people with disabilities for the last 20 years, dating back to my first job in high school. As CEO of The Arc Central Chesapeake Region (The Arc CCR), a nonprofit committed to providing people with I/DD the opportunity to gain independence, I’m proud to see our neighbors with I/DD become more active in the community through volunteering, working, and living independently like you or me.  With more than 19 percent of adults in Maryland with a developmental disability, it’s crucial that what happened to Ethan Saylor never happens again.

To begin the process of supporting law enforcement to better understand how to communicate with people with I/DD, The Arc CCR has been meeting with police officers, emergency/medical first responders and sheriffs. We have shared information and strategies on how to read body language, identify cues for listening and understanding, and understand some of the reactions of people with I/DD that can be easily misunderstood.

For example, a person with I/DD may respond to questions with a “yes” as a way to be polite; however, they may not fully comprehend the direction or question. Some may feel uncomfortable making eye contact, or may have vision impairments, which in an emergency situation may be interpreted as disrespect. Two key tips for law enforcement and first responders is to look for a support person nearby for assistance, and to speak clearly, giving one direction at a time.

With the support of a grant awarded to The Arc CCR by the Ethan Saylor Alliance, as well as support from The Arc Maryland, we’ve partnered with the Caroline County Schools, Benedictine and the Chesapeake Center to host a free community event on June 25 at Chesapeake College, that is designed to foster dialogue between people with disabilities, their families and to build on the tips we’ve provided to law enforcement and first responders thus far. Engagement and dialogue between these groups and people with I/DD is instrumental in helping first responders and law enforcement to really understand the importance of how to communicate with these members of the community during an emergency situation.  During the event, people with I/DD will lead an evening of games and activities as a way to start the dialogue.

The Arc CCR is proud of the interest and genuine excitement from Eastern Shore law enforcement and first responders in participating in the event. Many are looking forward to being more engaged with people with I/DD and their families. In addition to the communication strategies they will learn, the event gives first responders an opportunity to get to know members of their community with I/DD on a personal level, and those personal connections will be instrumental in the event of an emergency situation.

It’s my hope that the dialogue will continue. In fact, the Ethan Saylor Grant opens each spring to community-based organizations interested in developing and facilitating positive community interaction programs and activities with I/DD communities and law enforcement, and I encourage other organizations to apply. Together we could share our ideas and improve the safety for people with I/DD in emergency situations. For more information about the event, please visit: Community Improv Event Details

 

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