Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DDs), cerebral palsy (CP), hearing and vision difficulties, and other disabilities can struggle with communication. They may have difficulties with problem-solving skills. They can also have difficulty following rules and obeying laws (1). They may struggle with interpersonal relationships, social responsibility, and general social skills. Or they may just walk, act, speak, or hear differently.
So what happens when people with disabilities are approached by law enforcement and are expected to respond within certain social guidelines?
Well, in the case of Ethan Saylor, it can be fatal.
As NPR’s Meg Anderson reports, Ethan, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, was at the movies in January of 2013, when his aide went to get the car (2). He then tried to enter the movie theater for a second showing without paying for another ticket and was stopped by deputies acting as security guards for the theater. Saylor did not understand, and therefore did not cooperate. In response to this, it is reported that at least one of the deputies removed him from the theater, and eventually climbed on top of him to restrain him. Ethan stopped breathing and died from asphyxia. His death was later ruled a homicide (3).
This is by no means the only time someone with a disability has been unnecessarily stopped, questioned, or harmed by the police in the United States. In July of 2017, a 14-year-old from Arizona, Connor Leibel, was held to the ground when his classic symptoms of autism (self-stimulation and repetitive movements) were misconstrued by an officer as intoxication (4). Charlie Hale, a 28-year-old writer with cerebral palsy, was stopped and searched in July of 2019 for the way he walked, looked around, and generally appeared “spaced” (5). Madgiel Sanchez, a 35-year-old deaf man was fatally shot by police outside of his home in September of 2017 when he was unable to hear the officers’ demands (6).
The issue of police taking excessive force against minorities is not a new one, with many high-profile incidents of African American police brutality deaths in recent headlines (7). Interestingly, many of those African Americans killed in high-profile incidents, such as Kajieme Powell, Eric Garner, Tanesha Anderson, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, also had a disability (8). But this aspect of their identities was not as highly reported, and often not reported at all.
Law enforcement failing to recognize or respond appropriately to an individual’s disability is a widespread issue. In 2012, an investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram and the Portland Press Herald showed that roughly half of the 375-500 people fatally shot by police each year in America have a mental illness (8). Not all of these people have disabilities, but the numbers are similarly high for the disabled community alone. The Ruderman Family Foundation stated in The Ruderman White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement use of Force and Disability that “disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers” (9). Many of these instances occur because police are not trained in how to handle cases involving individuals with disabilities.
Ethan’s mother, Patti Saylor, says that she was shocked to learn the attitude of law enforcement and others in the community in response to her son being killed by police. They asserted that he should have listened to the instructions that were given to him (3). However, Ethan did not actually have the ability to follow the instructions given to him. Saylor explained, “We know something the police don’t know. I felt like we needed to teach them, and then hold them accountable” (2).
Patti has since fought to improve police training with individuals with disabilities and transform the way police approach these cases in her community. Her extraordinary efforts have nearly single-handedly made her home state of Maryland a leader in police training on responding to people with I/DDs (2). Maryland now has The Ethan Saylor Alliance, which helps police approach real-world scenarios with people with I/DDs, and ensures that people with I/DDs are really involved in the training. This organization, along with a few others across the country, teaches police to better recognize disabilities and use different tactics to communicate with individuals who have them.
Disability rights advocates hope to see not just some, but all police officers go through similar disability training across the country. But there is still a ways to go before they become the norm.
- Definition of Intellectual Disability. Retrieved from https://aaidd.org/intellectual-disability/definition
- Anderson, M. (2019, April 13). How One Mother’s Battle Is Changing Police Training On Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/04/13/705887493/how-one-mothers-battle-is-changing-police-training-on-disabilities
- Maqbool, A. (2018, October 4). Don’t shoot, I’m disabled. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-45739335
- Silberman, S. (2017, September 19). The Police Need to Understand Autism. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/opinion/police-autism-understanding.html?auth=login-email&login=email&module=inline
- Mohdin, A. (2019, July 25). Man with cerebral palsy criticises stop and search by police. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/jul/25/man-with-cerebral-palsy-criticises-stop-and-search-by-police
- Haag, M. (2017, September 21). Deaf Man Is Fatally Shot by Oklahoma City Police, Despite Pleas. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/us/oklahoma-city-police-shooting-deaf.html?_r=0&module=inline
- Ruderman, J., & Simons, J. A. (2016, February 4). Why no outrage for other victims of police brutality? Retrieved from https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/civil-rights/242868-why-no-outrage-for-other-victims-of-police-brutality
- (1970, March 16). Deadly force series: Day 1. Retrieved from https://www.pressherald.com/interactive/maine_police_deadly_force_series_day_1/
- Perry, D. M., & Carter-Long, L. (2016 March). “The Ruderman White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement use of Force and Disability.”