Emergencies: Are Responders Prepared to Help People with Special Needs?


The number of people with disabilities has increased significantly in a number of countries over the last few years. This increase includes "invisible disabilities" such as autism and ADHD. Growth in the number of people with "invisible disabilities" increases the likelihood that police, fire or other emergency personnel are going to come into contact with someone with a disability who needs their help or who may be able to help them.  This interaction will only be productive if emergency personnel are given training on how to recognize disabilities and special needs and how to interact with people who have disabilities and special needs.

If emergency responders don't recognize or understand an invisible disability such as autism, the consequences can be significant.  In Salt Lake City, a young man with autism was pulled over for speeding.  He appeared agitated to the officer and was arrested and charged with criminally aggressive behavior. ttp://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/politics/56184217-90/lake-salt-autism-officer.html.csp.

In the UK, a young girl with autism was arrested and placed in jail as police thought she was drunk.  Police pressed charges against her even though a doctor said she had not been drinking.  The ordeal was emotionally devastating to the girl who later tried to commit suicide.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2269228/Autistic-girl-spent-hours-cell--police-wrongly-thought-drunk.html.

These situations are just two examples of police misinterpreting the behavior of people with special needs and illustrate the potential for serious consequences if a person's disability isn't recognized and understood by emergency personnel. 

At present, different countries and communities are approaching this issue with their own plans. For example, some police departments in the US have registered children with autism in their databases so officers are aware if they are called to that location that there is a child or adult with autism living there. In New York, the state is implementing First Responder Disability Training which "provides training exercises and protocols on how to assist individuals across the disability spectrum." (http://online.wsj.com/article/AP8c487d649dbf4942a7ebc6978c7621de.html?mod=googlenews_wsj) In Australia, one agency asks communities to help those with disabilities in case of a bush fire.  (https://esa.act.gov.au/2013/01/11/looking-after-people-with-special-needs/) 

These preparations are helpful in the areas they service but what are other states and countries doing to address this potential problem?  Even where there is an effort to educate emergency personnel on disabilities, how comprehensive is it?

My brief research into this area indicates that our governments and policymakers haven't established uniform training for emergency responders.  Efforts to date are piecemeal and inadequate. Some people may argue that we are asking to much of emergency responders to recognize and understand multiple disabilities.  I don't think so - people with special needs and/or disabilities should be able to rely on the same level of service as those without disabilities.

There isn't an easy solution to this problem.  I would suggest that as a first step each country set up a taskforce to evaluate current efforts to educate responders on disabilities and to develop a nationwide and consistent approach that both first responders and people with disabilities will understand and be able to rely on.


©Mary M Conneely T/A Advocacy in Action

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