For those wanting to get into law enforcement for the purpose of arresting criminals, and enforcing traffic laws, I would offer one word of advice. The culture of law enforcement has changed in the past thirty years and officers have become social workers. We are called on to solve the problems for those who cannot solve them themselves. Officers are expected to have the answer to every question asked. Even when it has nothing to do with police work. People call 911 for one specific reason. We show up. Citizens call us because they have no one else to call. In the law enforcement world, our plates are full, and more is being added daily. While we are constantly trying to find a bigger plate, we must remember to add more knowledge and information to that plate. The fact is, “you do not know what you do not know”. If you have not been given the information, then you do the best you can with the information you have. My recommendation is that you get a bigger plate of knowledge. With that being said, it should be noted that studies show about 59% of all law enforcement interactions involve an individual with a disability.
Over 30 years ago, I raised my right hand and took an oath. An oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States for “all” people and to enforce the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I took an oath to protect “all” of society from injustice. An oath to protect the weak from “oppression and intimidation”. Fourteen years into my career, my eyes were opened to a section of society that is often misrepresented, and in some cases went unnoticed. I was given the task of implementing a program for my agency. The purpose of the program was to address the issue of individuals with cognitive impairment and other disabilities who tend to wander or elope from caregivers. Search and Rescue missions to find missing individuals with a disability were becoming daily calls-for-service for many agencies across the country. As I began to meet family after family dealing with disabilities, I began to realize that public safety officers were responded to a wide variety of calls directly related to disabilities daily. It was not just the wandering and eloping. Officers were not recognizing that the calls were directly related to a disability because “we did not know what we did not know”. We had not been trained or educated on disabilities.
A Better Understanding was born out of a need. The first need was for public safety officers to understand disabilities; many of which are invisible. There are no telltale signs or visual cues to disabilities or disorders such as Autism or Alzheimer’s Disease. A second need was for the disability world to know that they matter in the eyes of the rest of the world. They need to know that others in society understand or have some knowledge of what they live on a daily basis.
As I have traveled the country teaching about various disabilities for 13 years, it has become clear to me that whether it is professionally or personally, all of us are affected by disabilities in some way. Some of us have a family member or friend with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Intellectual Disability or some other disability. Many of us have a family member or friend dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of Dementia. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of Autism is 1 in 59 births (4 time more prevalent for males). Per the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.8 million in the United States dealing with Alzheimer’s or another Dementia. The question is not whether or not we will interact with members of these population, it is a matter of when.
ABU started from my concern for the safety of officers, as well as the safety of these special populations. Police officers have the tools to injure people and to take lives. Individuals with Autism and Alzheimer’s may exhibit behaviors that may appear odd or in some cases threatening. It is easy for these behaviors to be misinterpreted. As a police officer, my number one goal is to go home alive after every shift. My second goal is that everyone involved goes home safe. We know that there are people in society who wish us ill will. They do not like us just because we were a uniform. This mindset lends itself to misinterpreting a behavior or behaviors as threatening. My goal is to teach. My goal is to educate. My goal is to advocate. My goal is to give officer, and the general public, A Better Understanding of certain disabilities and the ability to recognize some of these behaviors. In the law enforcement arena, ABU focuses on understanding the behaviors to promote “Peaceful Interactions for Positive Outcomes.” ABU’s emphasis to the General Public and corporate world is inclusion. The general public, corporate world, and society as a whole need to better understand disabilities and realize the potential of special populations. These amazing people still matter. They are worth no less than the neurotypical, non-disabled population. They are capable of extraordinary things. In some way, I wonder if the lack of being able to accept and recognize disabilities is a disability in itself.
As ABU in the public safety realm, it has evolved into an opportunity for everyone to gain A Better Understanding of disabilities. I implore medical professionals, corporations, and society, to seek and understand the value of every person and realize the need to incorporate these individuals into the world. It would not only be a benefit to that individual, but it would benefit the world. It must also be realized that while some disabilities offer no visible cues, they often carry with them untapped potential that may not be realized. The realization comes from a willingness to participate in inclusion.
A Better Understanding of disabilities can lead to a better world.