I previously posted a podcast about victims with disabilities, after having provided a training to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office on how to best approach a case involving a victim with a disability. This is part 2 of the Victims with Disabilities series of the Legally Abled Podcast, where I provide the actual statistics on victims with disabilities in the U.S. If you are a person with a disability or you know and care for a person with a disability, it is important that you know what the current state of victimization is involving people with disabilities. Once you know how prevalent this problem is, you can start to understand how important it is to arm yourself with legal and practical knowledge as to how you can best protect yourself if you are ever faced with this situation.
If you have any questions regarding people with disabilities, or are interested in having me provide a training on navigating life and the law with disabilities please feel free to reach out at email@example.com.
Please listen, subscribe, and review this podcast on the Apple Podcast app (which is pre-downloaded on Apple phones–it’s a purple App icon labeled “Podcasts”)! For those without iPhones have a listen at the end of this post! I also am very open to answering questions on the air if you are interested in sending me questions to discuss on the podcast!
Thank you for your continued interest and feel free to pass along.
Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC
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.
Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC
For details on the show’s episode mentioned above, click below:
One 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:
Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC
My name is Ashley Jacobson and I have spent more than a decade devoted to disability advocacy. During my undergraduate years, an immediate family member of mine endured a serious car accident which left her facing ongoing rehabilitation for a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Her rehabilitation process opened my mind to a world of systemic challenges people with disabilities face on a daily basis. I graduated in Undergraduate Studies with Specialties in Special Education, Psychology, and Political Science from Western Michigan University and then received my Master’s degree from Michigan State University’s Rehabilitation Counseling program (ranked #1 in the nation). Rehabilitation Counseling is a field which empowers people with disabilities through counseling and training to live their most independent and fulfilling lives vocationally, personally, and otherwise. During my graduate studies, I worked as the Program Coordinator for the Building Opportunities for Networking and Discovery (BOND) program for college students on the autism spectrum attending Michigan State University, through MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. After graduating with my Master’s degree, I passed the national Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) exam and spent time counseling youth and adults with disabilities for a non-profit organization in Michigan.
I quickly realized that there was more I could do to advance the interests of the disability community. Without violating confidentiality, I can attest to the misconceptions, barriers, and problematic vulnerabilities that create an inaccessible justice system. I saw clients reach out to police, attorneys, and others in the community for help, only to be misunderstood. I saw too many of my clients with disabilities dealing with legal troubles based on a lack of accessibility to the right resources.
Truthfully, I also found many actors in our system who were simply not adequately trained in how to approach a legal issue involving a person with a disability–whether that person was a victim/survivor of a crime, alleged to have committed a crime, or needed assistance with domestic violence, family law issues, or educational barriers. I grew frustrated in referring my clients to attorneys because while those attorneys were competent and excellent in their field, they really did not have the background and training in how to approach a case involving a person with a disability. But, pointing fingers at missteps and misunderstandings is not my goal. The only true pathway to a more inclusive system for people with disabilities, is to focus on simple and concrete approaches to making our legal system accessible to the complex and diverse disability community.
Seeing a dire need for attorneys that have disability expertise, I enrolled in an accelerated 2-year law school program at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, from which I plan on graduating in 2018. An honest look at our history will show you that there is room for improvement in how we treat people with disabilities, and this is my focus. I aim to consult members of the community as to how we can accurately assess and identify solutions when handling a situation involving a person with disabilities, and empower individuals with disabilities to be their best advocates while receiving the full protection of their constitutional rights.
This is where this site comes into play. Here I will provide resources and updates on disability issues and the law. What you find on this site does not constitute legal advice to its readers, but rather a resource for people with disabilities and their communities. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me for further assistance or insight.
Thank you for your time and interest.
Ashley (McIntyre) Jacobson, MA, CRC