Accommodations and Common Misconceptions

Let’s talk about accommodations.  First, let’s clear up what they are.  Accommodations are the steps taken, methods utilized, and resources provided or used that level the playing field for people with disabilities.  They enable people with disabilities to achieve their highest potential.  Once in place, they are mandated by law.  Schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities and in general, schools and workplaces are required to not discriminate against students and workers with disabilities.

Next, let’s talk about what they aren’t.  They are NOT “special treatment” (and if I have to hear one more professor or student refer to them as such…let’s just say it won’t be pretty).  People with disabilities are not given an advantage over others without disabilities by using accommodations.  Let that sink in.  People with disabilities use accommodations to show you their abilities, not to give them some magical new ability to one-up a person without a disability.

So, what is an example of an accommodation?  For example, for people with a physical disability like hand tremors, or a learning disability that affects their ability to write might require the use of a computer with speech-to-text software so you can read what they know and want to convey.  The use of the speech-to-text software doesn’t give their brain answers for the test, or info for that big project at work, it simply enables them to express themselves.   When they aren’t given this accommodation, they aren’t able to write, and can’t convey to their teacher the knowledge they have worked hard to acquire and would likely receive poor scores on exams.  But with the accommodation they have the ability to potentially be an “A” student, because they can actually tell you what they know.  People without disabilities are allowed to hand-write their exams to express what they know, why can’t people who use other modes of communication out of necessity, use those methods to show their understanding of the material?  Using an accommodation simply allows people with disabilities to display their abilities in a way that the inaccessible world can read/hear/see.

What is especially hard for people without disabilities to understand is when someone has an invisible disability–or a disability that is not easily apparent to people.  This could include a brain injury, learning disability, chronic illness or health condition, or a number of other disabilities.  In these situations, there are several accommodations that can be utilized–too many to put in this blog post–but know that these accommodations have been studied, practiced, and deemed appropriate by many before you.  If someone needs additional time on an exam, it isn’t because they get more time.  To them, that time isn’t the time they are working on their answers necessarily.  It is the time their brain needs to process the information, or to process language.  It is the time that they spend redirecting themselves back to the test after losing attention because of ADHD.  It is the time they spend trying to find the right word in their brain because their TBI makes it harder to find.

In my career I’ve worked with people with disabilities in the education setting at almost all stages.  First-hand I’ve seen students not receive or be deterred from seeking accommodations.  This is not because the accommodations were not appropriate, but rather because the school lacked the motivation to add one more thing to their list of responsibilities in their already under-funded and under-supported classrooms.

But the truth of the matter is that students with disabilities are some of the best but underutilized resources to our communities.  They are intelligent, capable, committed, and creative.  If we allow ourselves to have access to what people with disabilities know, through accommodations and otherwise, we can advance as a society and community.  We can better measure their skills and gifts, and encourage students to engage in paths that lead to new discoveries.  Without a simple (and usually inexpensive) accommodation, we could miss out on the cure to cancer, or the rocket-ship that takes us to Mars.  And it all starts in childhood.

When we don’t provide reasonable accommodations to students, we discourage them from learning at a young age.  We tell students that they failed, when in reality we didn’t know how to access their brilliance.  I can’t tell you how many adults with disabilities I have worked with who had low expectations for themselves, when it was inappropriate for their abilities to achieve higher potentials.  They say and think each year for the 12 years of education in this country that they are “stupid” when in reality they aren’t.  We train students with disabilities to be under-achievers, when they could contribute in ways we never imagined.

I personally know several special education and general education teachers who hold their students to their highest potential and have no problem identifying and encouraging students to use reasonable accommodations.  This post is not about those teachers.  This post is about the hundreds of teachers (usually general education teachers but also several *burned-out* special ed teachers) and administrators who want to put all students with disabilities in a box labeling them as burdens throughout their educational career.

I’ll dive into disability in higher-ed in another post, because that is a whole other beast, but it is even more of an issue in colleges and universities, mostly because they are just now encountering high-achieving (diagnosed) students with disabilities and are catching up to their growth after the fact.  I had the privilege of working for Michigan State University’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, where I believe they have the model of what any disability resource office at a university should look like.  I also ran a program for students with autism who attended the university and will dive deep into the resources provided at the post-secondary school level (and what is mandated and legally required at that level).

All in all, accommodations are advancing with technology and we need to encourage their use instead of treating those who need accommodations as lesser-than or questionable people trying to receive short-cuts or special treatment.  When we allow the use of accommodations, and stop deterring students with disabilities from contributing to their classrooms, we will see an improvement in students’ demeanor and emotional health.  We will see students with disabilities maintain gainful employment and be able to better support their families.  We will see leaders with disabilities enacting change in their local, state and federal governments for the betterment of society.

 

“I Can and I Will:” accessibility on Fixer Upper

 

pexels-photo-271667.jpeg

For a family that consists of a person with a disability, accessible housing is often at the forefront of their minds but unattainable until their wallets catch up with their needs.  In a world that is still largely built for the typically able-bodied, it is challenging to find a house that is accessible.  When you can’t move freely around your home, can it really feel like a home?

A couple of weeks ago on the television show Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines worked with the Tim Tebow Foundation to renovate a house for the Copp family.  The Copps have two young boys, Calan and Lawson, who use wheelchairs for mobility.  After Tim Tebow meets with Chip, the show catches steam with Chip, Joanna and Tim meeting the Copps at a baseball diamond.  I loved how the boys were shown playing baseball and being active.  So often when shows involve people with disabilities and it has a charity angle, they tend to make the people with disabilities look needy to garner sympathy for the people with disabilities and pride for the charity.  It was nice showing how empowered and able the boys are, as it showed them doing a typical but cherished childhood activity.  It also shows how with the right accessible technology and equipment, people with disabilities can do the same activities as the temporarily able-bodied.

As the episode goes on, Joanna shows the parents the mock-up of the renovations they want to complete for the house.  Some accessible aspects of the home: ADA accessible bathrooms with lowered sinks and mirrors that tilt so they can provide a lower angle for the sons who sit lower to the ground in their wheelchairs; a separate lower sink in the kitchen; a table that allows users of wheelchairs to pull right up to it height-wise; hallways wide enough to have wheelchairs pass through without it being too tight; ramps to get in and out of the house; posts and handrails that allow the boys to stand, move and play; and wheelchair-accessible van storage space.  The show also highlights an inspirational message in one of the rooms to encourage the boys to continue to grow (*hint* it’s in the title of this article).

This show really exposed the needs of a family that includes people who use wheelchairs.  I loved the overall feel of the show.  It was a feel-good episode for sure, but it had a very empowering angle.  Without giving away spoilers, the show ends with the boys receiving a remarkable backyard that allows them to use their space to their maximum ability and desire.  The show brings about an important issue though—a family that has a person with a disability has an unending amount of expenses.  Too often, people with disabilities are forced to “make it work” in an environment they were living in prior to acquiring a disability—even if that environment is unsuitable or completely unworkable.  A father who uses a wheelchair shouldn’t have to eat in the living room because the dining room table is too short/tall for his wheelchair to fit.  A person with a disability shouldn’t have to be carried around their own house when they have the independence through the use of assistive technology to move around on their own.  While the Tim Tebow Foundation did a wonderful thing in funding this renovation for the Copp family, the vast majority of families that have a person with a disability in them are forced to pay large amounts of money with or without insurance, even with assistance from government or other financial-assistance programs.

This is why accessible buildings, homes, and other structures must become the norm as opposed to the exception.  We must continue to advocate for accessibility, and for reasonable pricing for making a home, car, or other device/structure accessible.  Being able to navigate this world with a disability should not be considered a luxury—it is a right.  I for one am grateful for shows like Fixer Upper for showing this angle of living with a disability.

Thank you,

Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC

legallyabled@gmail.com

For details on the show’s episode mentioned above, click below:

A detailed review of the Copp family’s episode

 

 

Person-first language (and the “R word”)

In a culture where there is a clear divide between those who just want to “stop being sooo politically correct” and those who want to make sure they are being respectful, it can be challenging to know what to say (and what not to say).  It becomes even more of a challenge when you are attempting to talk about a population of people or a person in particular, and you are not 100% sure on the right terminology to use.

So, hopefully this post will clear things up a bit when it comes to discussing a person with a disability and why this topic matters.

So first—why does what you say matter?  Language is one of the most significant indicators of emotion.  Language dictates how you process the thoughts, feelings and actions of another person in your brain.  Language is used in gathering your perception of others and your environment.

Language directly affects how you treat others, because it demonstrates how you think about them.

Historically, people with disabilities have been (wrongfully) perceived as weak, pitiful burdens in our society.  From the “handicapped” label first used to describe homeless veterans with (what we now know as) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who were sitting on the street with their “caps in hand” asking for money, to the middle-schoolers (and many adults) using the “R word” to make fun of their friends when they are acting stupid, our society has made it very clear that it was deemed socially acceptable to stigmatize people with physical and mental differences.

I have worked with the disability community for over a decade.  In seeing many challenges my clients faced involving the legal system, I decided to go to law school.  I am a law student, and I complete my studies this August.  In my current law school program, which I have loved, I have encountered professors, classmates and administrators who (knowing our school has students with disabilities in attendance) talk about people with disabilities like trash.  A professor in a class I greatly enjoy, in response to me saying I want to represent people with disabilities, said, “Oh, you want to represent the meek and pathetic.”  To which I did not hide my shocked expression as he quickly moved on to the next topic.

I have many professors who are socially conscious, and respectful towards students and other people with disabilities.  But, I also have heard professors refer to accommodations as “special treatment” and refer to people with mental illness as “crazies” while rotating their index finger in a circle next to their head.  These are accomplished, intelligent, highly-educated professionals.  Yet still, training on disability appropriateness and inclusion has not been emphasized in their studies.  These are attorneys and professors who represent and teach people with disabilities on a daily basis, even if they don’t know it.  They aren’t bad people.  They’re just misinformed and desensitized based on societal conditioning that people with disabilities aren’t worthy of respect.

This stops right here, right now.  It never was, and never will be acceptable.  This is not a recommendation, but a requirement.  This is a heads-up that what you say matters, and if you use offensive language you won’t be accepted, and it isn’t cool.

Over 52 million people in this country have been diagnosed with a disability—over 2 million people in Michigan (where I live).

Disability is part of the human experience.  It’s not grim, but it is the truth that at some point in your life you will have a disability.  If you haven’t yet, it could happen tomorrow or in 20 years.  But you cannot deny that at some point, as you age, you will face trauma and change, physical and emotional.  In living life, you are putting your body in a position where it wears down over time.  You will experience unpredictability in your life and you will have to learn to accept it, adapt to it, and thrive with it.

In that moment, when you are likely dealing with extreme physical and emotional changes, and grieving over abilities lost and limitations imposed, would you want to be insulted or would you want to be respected?  You wouldn’t want people to categorize you as a burden, or incapable, or unworthy—because you are not any of those things simply because of a physical or emotional disability.

You’d want to be seen as a person, first and above all else.

This is where the person-first language shift began.  The disability community and its advocates decided that someone needed to display how to appropriately talk to and about people with disabilities.

First, you call the person by his/her name.  If the disability is not relevant to the conversation, it is not necessary nor appropriate to attach it to your description of the person.

When disability is relevant to the conversation, use person-first language.  Instead of saying “disabled man” say “man with a disability.”  Instead of saying “schizophrenic” say “woman with schizophrenia.”  It takes practice to get in the habit of using the right phrasing, but it’s important.  You are literally and semantically putting the person first.  This emphasizes that person, their abilities, and their individuality over any disability that might follow.

Person-first language should be your foundation.  If the person with the disability prefers you to use other language or phrasing, always comply with what language they feel comfortable with, but NEVER use the “R word.”

Let’s talk about the “R word” for a minute.  The word “retarded” was part of a clinical diagnosis (mental retardation), that our society deemed an insult for someone they perceived as stupid, irrational, or ridiculous.  So, our society decided to use this part of the clinical diagnosis, not toward those with a diagnosed intellectual disability, but instead towards people without disabilities as a way to criticize or ostracize them.

Because our selfish, rude, and ignorant society twisted this clinical diagnosis into such a horrendous insult, the word lost its original meaning completely.  The word became a weapon instead of a condition.  A simple word began to carry so much hate and stigma in its delivery, that this large community of people with disabilities had to actually protest and advocate that medically and legally the word be removed.

To anyone out there who responds to a request to stop using that word by saying, “but technically I am right, because that’s what doctor’s use,” you’re wrong.  You’re also (likely) not a doctor.  It is not used in laws, textbooks, nor in practice.  You have a brave girl named Rosa to thank for that.  Rosa’s law was passed in 2010, and if you want to read the actual law that was passed, you can find it here. 

Rosa was a strong, smart, driven young girl who decided that she was tired of being made fun of, and tired of others using the “R word” to make fun of others.  With the support of many senators, representatives, and public advocacy campaigns, Rosa took this change in language into her own hands and asked the government to remove the “R word” from its laws.  Rosa was successful in achieving this goal, after “Rosa’s Law” was signed and approved by former President Barack Obama in 2010.  Additionally, after seeing the mess that was the movie Tropic Thunder, the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign spread the message that using the “R word” to make fun of someone in the media and socially is unacceptable.

Most importantly, if you are wondering other reasons as to why you should not use the “R word” besides it being technically incorrect, offensive, and ignorant, you just shouldn’t use it because people with disabilities don’t want you to.  It’s that simple.  Be a decent human being to other human beings.  You will someday be in their shoes, and you’ll want someone to show you empathy and respect when that happens.  But even if you are the rare exception that is not going to have a disability someday, it takes more energy to spread hateful language than it does to just be decent.

For these reasons, you also want to be really aware of how you perceive people with disabilities.  This is where it can get tricky for many people without disabilities, because you may not be using words that you find to be offensive, but you are inadvertently mislabeling or stereotyping a person with a disability.

You may mean well when you say someone is “inspiring” simply because they are living with a disability.  But when you say that someone is inspiring for doing things that a person typically does each day, it’s more than a little condescending.  We know, you are acknowledging that there may be more things a person with a disability has to do to achieve the same results you can in your day-to-day activities.  But when you say that someone is “inspiring” or “overcoming her disability” in doing typical daily functions, you are also sending the message that her life is so awful and unimaginable, that she must have to overcome her horrible circumstances.  Don’t be patronizing.  Be respectful.

What does it boil down to?  People with disabilities don’t want your pity or sympathy.  They want your respect and empathy.  When you say someone is “suffering with…” or “overcoming…” or “confined to/by…” you are invoking feelings of pity, your inclination is to feel sorry for that person.  It’s like saying, “his life is so awful, he is suffering/overcoming/confined by his disability.”

Instead, you can use (when the disability is relevant) “sustained a brain injury,” “diagnosed with…” or “living with (insert disability here).”  This language normalizes disability, instead of dramatizing it.  Disability may be part of that person’s life, but it’s not their whole life and it certainly is not who they are.  People with disabilities adapt to their differences, or even utilize their differences to become successful.

I appreciate those who have stuck with me here.  This is a good cheat sheet I use in many of my presentations:

person-first chart

Also, keep in mind that certain disability populations take pride in their label because they do not see it as a stereotyped label but instead use the term as a way of indicating a community of like-experienced individuals.  Person-first language should always be your starting-point—your foundation.  As I stated earlier, if the individual states he wants you to refer to him in another way, it’s okay to refer to that person using the term he has provided.  Always start back at these guidelines though with new people that you meet.

 

Thank you for caring and sharing.

 

Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC

legallyabled@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Victims with Disabilities: Part 1 (New podcast episode out now)

This week I was honored to present a training to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office in Lansing, MI about victims with disabilities.

In recent years, there have been some major cases reported of crimes against people with disabilities.  In this podcast I dive deeply into these cases, some of which are graphic in nature (NSFW and may not be suitable for children).  I find that these cases are not reported in the media frequently enough on a national level, and for this reason most people are not aware of the brutality that is sometimes used against people with disabilities.  I recommend that you listen to my description of these cases so you can fully empathize and get a well-rounded picture of the larger problem.  I highlight these cases, so we can evaluate and identify how to assess situations involving victims with disabilities and implement systemic change to empower people with disabilities and create a safer environment for them to thrive.

This podcast also discusses how the criminals in these cases start displaying violent criminal behavior against people with disabilities from a young age.  Many of the cases I talk about involve teenagers who commit violent crimes against people with disabilities, and we need to address how to train young people to better respect people with disabilities, and to not seek approval by posting violence on social media apps.

I also discuss strategies for helping someone with a disability explain and report what happened.  In this podcast I explain communication methods and accommodations that can help when attorneys and loved ones are trying to ascertain the details of a crime in an effort to help a person with a disability.

In Part 2 of this episode, which will be posted later this week, I will go more into the specific statistics of crimes against people with disabilities in the recent past and studies published on this topic.  So have a listen to this episode to learn about current events pertaining to this problem and to gain an understanding of why this is important and how you can help, and then tune in to our next episode to learn about the statistics of incidence of crime against people with disabilities and important and compelling research on the topic.

For more individualized assistance on a specific situation involving a victim with a disability, or to receive a training on this topic or other topics involving people with disabilities, please feel free to reach out to me at legallyabled@gmail.com.

Thank you so much to our listeners!  Please subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes app, and rate the podcast 5 stars!  I am also very open to receiving podcast topic requests and other feedback so that this podcast can be tailored to the listeners.

iPhone listeners:

Listen to the latest episode on your iPhone and subscribe and rate this podcast by clicking  here

 

 

For non-iPhone listeners, you can access the latest episode below:

 

The articles referenced in this podcast are found at:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/torture-attack-illinois-teen-not-racially-motivated-cops-article-1.2935818

https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2017/11/09/cedar-hill-teens-took-turns-raping-mentally-disabled-girl-school-restroom-police-say

http://abc7chicago.com/news/video-man-with-cerebral-palsy-mocked-punched-/2027050/

◦http://www.phillymag.com/news/2017/06/07/teens-video-punching-disabled-man-arrested/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/25/white-high-school-football-players-in-idaho-charged-with-raping-black-disabled-teammate-with-a-coat-hanger/?utm_term=.a52890258f60

http://wishtv.com/2017/05/25/man-charged-with-sexual-battery-victim-is-teenager-with-disability/

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/09/18/disabled-teen-attacked-outside-north-metro-target

http://www.wzzm13.com/news/crime/macomb-township-couple-charged-with-pimping-out-disabled-woman-in-mobile-home-park-shed/480634514

http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com/story/news/local/2017/03/24/child-neglect-victim-remains-critical/99589192/

 

Introducing: the Legally Abled Podcast!

I am thrilled to announce that the first episode of the Legally Abled podcast has arrived!  This podcast is for people with disabilities, and those who care about people with disabilities.  I have several amazing guests lined up including disability specialists, people with disabilities, people who work in the disability field, family members of people with disabilities, advocates, experts, and more!!  Please have a listen and subscribe and rate us in the itunes podcast app!

Click this link to subscribe and listen in the itunes podcast app:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/legally-abled-podcast/id1335829439

Final LA Cover

Appropriately assessing a situation involving a person with a disability

pexels-photo-167669.jpegFollowing my last post, you may be wondering, “so where can I start?”  Start with changing your instincts in how you assess a situation.  When you see someone crying, screaming, losing emotional control, are they hitting themselves?  Are they repeating certain phrases over and over?  Are they disoriented or confused about where they are or who they are speaking with?  Are they using the same language repeatedly when asked questions, showing frustration in not being able to explain the situation?  Are their sentences disjointed and shortened?

Of course, as people with disabilities are people first above anything else (and I’ll be diving deep into person-first language soon), they are just as unique and individualized as any other person on the planet.  But, if you take the time to quickly assess the situation BEFORE responding, you might see common indicators of a disability.  And your best bet if you cannot tell—ASK.  You don’t have to outright ask if the person has a disability.  Talk to the person in a calm voice.  Ask them what’s going on, if they need any help, what they are feeling, what they need.

However, (and I cannot emphasize this enough) do not ask them more than 1 question at a time.  It sounds simpler than it is.  In everyday communication, we rarely ask one succinct question and wait for an answer.  It’s conversational to ask, “How’s it going?  What’s going on?” or “What’s your name?  Can you tell me why you’re upset?”  But to many people with disabilities, before they can answer the first question, throwing another question at them only diverts their attention in a different direction and can quite literally block their brain from processing the information they need to give to respond to any of your questions.

Ask these questions before approaching them.  Ask if they need space, and if they do, have an area they can safely go while the situation is being resolved.

Above all else, don’t threaten.  Don’t say “do this, or you can’t leave,” or “if you don’t do what I say, I’m taking you to jail.”  Those statements may be the truth, but you are much more likely to de-escalate and solve the problem at hand quickly if you try to remove the tension from the situation.  Some people with disabilities can be susceptible to extra anxiety and vulnerability.  They may not be physically or mentally capable of doing what you are asking, and when they realize this, and cannot communicate that to you, it can escalate the circumstances until everything spirals out of control.  Always listen, and not just to verbal cues but nonverbal ones (hand motions, facial expressions, guarding behavior, rocking, etc.).  These are small but monumental changes to your approach that can really make a difference.

There are always emergencies that are to be handled differently—but make sure you are correctly identifying the situation as a real emergency.  It may not be as urgent as you initially believed once you follow the approaches I’ve given above.  Take the time to listen, and provide alternative methods for communication.  If the person is not responding to you, ask if they want to write down or type what is going on.  Provide an interpreter or translator whenever possible.  Ask if there is someone you can bring to help explain what is happening.  Your conventional methods for how you communicate or respond in a situation are not everyone’s and they may not even always be the best way to respond.  Be open to differences and you’ll be more likely to correctly assess the situation.

For a detailed consultation on responding to situations involving a person with a specific type of disability, please feel to contact me at legallyabled@gmail.com for an individualized consultation.

 

Thank you,

Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC

Legallyabled@gmail.com

Disability and Incarceration: The Facts

pexels-photo-143580.jpegOne of the most devastatingly apparent indicators of how our treatment of people with disabilities affects a community is found when analyzing the number of individuals in jails and prisons that live with disability.  A 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics found based on a National Inmate Survey, of those who disclosed, 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported living with at least one disability (affecting their hearing, vision, cognitive processes, ambulatory skills, self-care, independent living abilities, or otherwise).*  Of those who disclosed their disabilities, most respondents identified as having a cognitive disability.*  Cognitive disabilities typically affect an individual’s processing, problem-solving, memory and/or attention skills but range from Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) to Down Syndrome.

Putting that information into context of our legal system, think about how truly difficult it would be for a person with a cognitive disability to navigate the legal system.  How can you understand your rights if the words being used aren’t in your cognitive arsenal?  How can you find an attorney, or decide on a deal or legal approach if you’re ill-equipped to problem-solve? How can you hear all of your options if your brain redirects your focus in the middle of the discussion with your attorney, the police, or others involved in the process?  How can you convey to the police or your attorney the legal issue at hand and the situation you are in?

This report raises questions as to how we can appropriately explain a person’s constitutional rights in a way that they will really understand, how we interpret what the person is relaying to us about events surrounding the legal issue, and how we implement appropriate representation, services and sentences.

This is not to say that there are no people with disabilities who should be held accountable for their crimes.  This is also not saying that people with disabilities are prone to committing crimes.  Rather, this is indicative of systemic deviation—deviation from services, supports, resources and evidence-based strategies towards mass incarceration of a population that could be highly receptive to rehabilitation, or could include those actually innocent. Instead of channeling people with disabilities through the appropriate channels or services, we are making assumptions and rushing them through the criminal justice system.

Further, our system assumes not only that people understand their rights, but that they are literate.  There are individuals signing their names to documents of which they have no understanding because their literacy skills are limited.

Now consider a couple of other important facts.  From this study, 13% of prisoners and 16% of jail inmates reported multiple disabilities.*  Now we aren’t just having to balance the analysis needed for one disability but for co-occurring disabilities.  Also, there is a real possibility that many with disabilities did not disclose, whether out of choice, lack of formal diagnosis, or lack of understanding about their diagnosis.  The U.S. Department of Justice Report found that men were less likely to report their disability.*  Further, based on the shame and stigma surrounding disability historically, mental illness tends to be  reported even less.  As a special educator and counselor I frequently encountered adults young and old that knew they were different, but had no idea what their disability diagnosis was or that they were even diagnosed with a disability.  Because our education system places so much of our disability efforts in the hands of the teachers and parents, and because those individuals are understandably constrained by time and finances in providing an explanation to the students or children, I have frequently encountered adults who have limited understanding in the diagnosis that affects their daily lives.  This is a systemic issue, but also a self-determination issue.

Self-determination is an underlying main focus of disability professionals.  Self-determination entails a person with the disability being able to understand his reality in living with disability, and to have the power to assess the situations he is in and make decisions on his own behalf.  Self-determination skills are the most important skills acquired by individuals with disabilities because it increases their independence, and acknowledges that more often than not people with disabilities are better equipped to speak on their own behalf about where they are at and what they want for their future.  As a disability professional, this was always in the back of my mind.  However, with caseloads and classrooms brimming with clients or students, and resources limited more and more each year, sometimes it is easy to fall into the pattern of getting through the day to day.  How can we think about the future when we are trying to get through the “here and now?”  So, while self-determination should always be the underlying concept in any program for people with disabilities, too often children with disabilities become adults with disabilities who do not have a clear understanding of their diagnoses.

So that’s the bad news.  Here is why you should care. First, under the United States Constitution and based on every precedent-setting court decision since, people are entitled to certain rights and protections under the law.  There are due process and equal protection rights on a federal and state level ensured to all citizens—not all citizens except people with disabilities.  We should also care because the incidence of disabilities being diagnosed is on the rise.  We are learning more and more about different disabilities and conditions, but yet aren’t using that knowledge to adapt within our communities.  Everyone knows someone close to them with some type of disability, or is a person with a disability.

Let’s say someone you care about has a disability–

Imagine that person calls the police for help, but cannot convey what is going on because of a cognitive or communication impairment and winds up getting arrested because they police assume they are drunk and disorderly.

Imagine a close loved one with an autism diagnosis on their worst day, spiraling emotionally out of control, who just needs space from the crowds that are surrounding you out in public.  A police officer approaches and the situation escalates because the person cannot follow the strict orders yelled at them in a moment of chaos.  Because they are not obeying and they keep attempting to avoid the officer, they are arrested.

Imagine a young man with Down Syndrome, who has worked incredibly hard to get a job he is more than qualified for, only to be accused by other workers for stealing because the coworkers believe people with disabilities are an easy target for blaming mistakes or missteps.  The police arrive, and despite this man having a guardian, the police question him alone.  Unaware of his support, of his protections, of his rights, of the possible next steps, the man winds up in a whirlwind of overwhelming questions creating stress and anxiety so severe he cannot finish his shift, despite really needing the money to pay rent.

Imagine a child in a classroom for students on the autism spectrum.  They are only in elementary school, but are spending time in a resource room for a little extra assistance in learning the material for the day.  But the schedule changes unexpectedly, a change this child really doesn’t like.  He starts hitting himself and throwing things, and the school’s security officer restrains him for a lengthy period of time.  He is restrained in his hands and legs, and is told if he just stops moving he will be released of the restraints but because of his disability, he is unable to comply to the demands and ends up being restrained for a lengthy period of time, in front of his classmates and teacher.  He now is scared to go to school, and has a meltdown every morning to the point where he is physically sick.

I don’t have to imagine these events, because they happened (many of which I witnessed first-hand).  You should care because it’s happening more and more, and will likely happen to someone you care about.  You should care because it might even happen to you.  You should care because people with disabilities are more capable today than ever of being successful within their jobs or careers, and support their own families—they have jobs and families that suffer when they are misunderstood, fired, or arrested.

There are several ways that people with disabilities can be better served in their communities, and in return how communities benefit from providing equal rights and opportunities to people with disabilities.  The most fundamental way to best serve people with disabilities (and, in turn, the community as a whole) is to provide people with disabilities their full rights under the law.  Additionally, officers of the law, teachers, administrators, and community members need to adapt their techniques in order to appropriately assess and resolve any situation without the need of any escalation.

Lately I have been providing trainings to different offices that deal with these types of situations with the goal of not pointing fingers but instead providing simple techniques that can completely change the direction of these scenarios.  The focus cannot be on controlling the situation.  It must be on appropriately assessing, in order to attain de-escalation (which has the end effect of controlling the situation).

My next post will discuss different approaches for correctly assessing a situation involving a person with a disability in detail, so if you care about the issues I’ve presented from the report mentioned above, please stay tuned!

*And to read the full U.S. Department of Justices Special Report from December 2015 referenced throughout this article, you can find it here:

https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dpji1112.pdf

 

Thank you!

Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC