It’s not hard to find stories about police or medical institution staff who brutalize people with disabilities. Unfortunately, a failure to understand a person with a disability can be fatal to them.

There was the situation in 2009, when police tased a 35-year-old man who was standing naked on an awning. The police disregarded the man’s mother who warned he was not taking his medication and was “acting out” as a result. This unfortunately cost him his life. Even more recently, last month, a police officer was stabbed in the head by an emotionally disturbed man. The man’s mother told media outlets that she had called 911 to inform them that he was bipolar and hadn’t taken his medication and requested help at her apartment; she believes police mishandled the situation, saying, “They did not get back-up, and they did not do their job right.”

To be fair, both the NYPD and the state’s Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities have adopted or are considering improvements to the way they deal with disabled people. But questions still linger: Are staff well trained to recognize the behaviors and body language associated with specific disabilities? Do they have readily available specialists to help prevent scenarios from morphing from an effort by police to assist to a violent confrontation, one in which cops are potential victims? (The officer stabbed in the head last month narrowly survived death or life-altering injury. The lieutenant who supervised the 2009 tasing committed suicide.)

To understand and accept an individual with a developmental disability is not rocket science, but it does require overcoming some pervasive cultural hangups. Anything in life that is out of the propagandized ‘norm’ is frowned upon and often puts fear in those who are unfamiliar with what is not deemed standard. A huge barrier that a person with a disability faces is people’s attitudes. These attitudes are often rooted in misinformation and misunderstandings about what it’s like to live with a disability.

One may feel that it is impossible to change what people think about persons with disabilities; however this is not true. There are several ways one can start to eliminate barriers people with disabilities are faced with. Three critical factors are training, community awareness and a push towards inclusion.

There are several steps that can be taken to promote true acceptance and integration. These include inviting people with disabilities to participate in community events and become more involved in society, teaching children to never fear a person with a disability, advocating for the rights of people with disabilities as any human being should be treated, and speaking up when someone makes fun of or uses inappropriate language when referring to a person with disability.

There are four significant protocols that can be implemented in assisting law enforcement, hospitals and clinics in building and maintaining better relationships with the disabled and their families:

1. Including in their basic and ongoing training some detailed material on developmental disabilities.
2. Finding ways for workers (police officers, hospital staff, et cetera) to spend time with disabled people outside of a crisis or treatment situation. Perhaps a program for disabled people to spend time volunteering at local precincts?
3. Developing community awareness events.
4. Starting an advisory group that includes, in the case of a police department, both officers and people with disabilities, to provide input on shaping policies and training

As an attorney, and a CEO of non-profit that serves thousands of disabled individuals and their families, I believe leadership and strategic management are imperative in building an environment of acceptance. Those who are entrusted to lead should find opportunities to increase education and awareness of those in hospitals, clinics and law enforcement, that they might learn treat with people with disabilities with their due rights and respect.

My hope is that through continued support, advocacy and education, all people will start to eliminate fears and discrimination and start to replace them with hope, understanding and acceptance for the disabled.

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