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Guest column: Bill helps those with disabilities avoid incidents with police

November 22, 2017
Scott Wiggam News

In public service, one has the opportunity to meet individuals with incredibly moving stories.

Shortly after I was elected to serve Wayne County as the state representative, a local mom called my office to share her passionate concern with me. Her son was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and was preparing to graduate from high school. Now, just as any parent, this mother became anxious due to her son recently receiving his driver’s license. I personally remember the pit in my stomach when my children pulled out of our driveway as they sat behind the wheel.

My wife and I, however, did not have the additional worries as this mother. She was concerned in the case of her son being pulled over by an officer, and his diagnosis — that he may be overstimulated by the lights, sirens, and stress when approached by an officer. This loving mother wanted there to be a way for her or her son to notify the officer of his communication barrier before the officer approached the vehicle, ultimately avoiding the escalation of a situation that could be handled appropriately if this information is made readily available.

As she shared her heartfelt concerns, I began to envision a bill that ultimately, was on the minds of several other representatives.

After a conversation with my colleague, State Rep. Theresa Gavarone, we drafted a bill and introduced it as House Bill 115. This bill removes the barrier between law enforcement and individuals with communication disabilities by creating a voluntary initiative for individuals to notify law enforcement of this potential hindrance.

By simply taking a one-page form to the doctor, an individual who meets the inclusive definition of a communication disability can have the form signed and turned into the local BMV. This information is entered into the police database, so officers are immediately notified that a communication disability may hinder the individual they are about to approach either by identifying through a license plate, driver’s license or State ID.

As the Dublin Chief Police stated during testimony, ”(the bill) providing a voluntary process, by which persons with a communication disability can register to be included in a statewide database, could help to de-escalate encounters with police.”

This bill is not exclusive for autism. Veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may volunteer to provide this information to law enforcement. The deaf community and individuals suffering from Multiple Sclerosis would also be eligible to inform law enforcement of their communication disability.

The absence of such an initiative in Ohio has harmed individuals, and has not provided law enforcement with this vital tool they need to interact with the community. While drafting this legislation, Ohioans from all over the state visited my office, sharing personal stories of being unable to communicate with officers, ultimately escalating the encounter.

Recently, a deaf man in Oklahoma City was killed by police when he did not respond to the verbal orders of the officer. The neighbors of the individual frantically attempted to inform the officers the man could not hear them, but the lack of information available to the officers potentially led to this altercation escalating into a fatal shooting.

Additionally, a 14-year old autistic child in Arizona was tackled by police in a park and arrested when he was exhibiting characteristics of an individual under the influence of drugs. This child was playing with a piece of string, and told the officer, when asked what he was doing, that he was “stimming.” This term is used to describe the actions of an individual with autism, such as rocking in place or repeatedly flapping their hands. The officer did not know what the child meant, assumed he was on drugs, and tackled him to the ground.

House Bill 115 is currently awaiting a second hearing in the Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee. This bill transcends party politics that are all too common in Columbus and Washington. The General Assembly has a chance with House Bill 115 to not only address the concerns of a Wayne County mother, but can lead the nation by creating a seamless process of communication between law enforcement and our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.