"Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people who have disabilities are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else. They may not be excluded or segregated from services, be denied services, or otherwise treated differently than other people." So says the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in its publication Introduction to Law Enforcement Information, which is available at www.ADA.gov.
The DOJ estimates that about 20 percent of Americans have disabilities. This figure will rise as the population ages and, as baby boomers grow older, law enforcement officers will increasingly encounter people with disabilities. To both provide services to people with disabilities and comply with federal law, then, law enforcement agencies need to be aware of the ADA.
It's not only illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, says Deputy Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, but fully complying with the ADA is the right thing to do for effective law enforcement. For example, not knowing how to communicate with someone — such as a witness who is deaf or hard of hearing — hinders effective law enforcement. A person who has a seizure while crossing the street could be in danger, and officers might not know how to help.
"I think it is incumbent upon a police department to be able to recognize and address individuals who have disabilities in order to promote effective law enforcement — in order to do their job," says King.
"It's also a good practice — to avoid any kind of liability on the part of the community or law enforcement agency — to know what the law requires and to fully comply with it."
Through Project Civic Access, the DOJ's disability rights section (within its civil rights division) offers many resources to help counties, cities, towns and villages eliminate physical and communications barriers that prevent people from participating fully in community life.
During the past six years, the civil rights division has worked cooperatively with city and county officials to improve access to government services for more than three million people. The division sent out teams of investigators, lawyers and architects to conduct compliance reviews in communities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. In most instances, the compliance reviews were undertaken by the DOJ's own initiative under the authority of Title II of the ADA and, often, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, because governments typically receive financial assistance from the DOJ and are therefore prohibited by both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA from discriminating on the basis of disability.
The disability rights section requested and received data from local governments and conducted physical surveys of facilities owned or leased by these governments and 911 systems. Local government officials responded favorably and cooperated fully in the reviews, according to the DOJ. They were timely in submitting records as requested, made themselves available to answer questions and escorted investigators through their communities so that facilities surveys could be accomplished efficiently. Most importantly, the DOJ reports, the government officials indicated a willingness to effect changes to make their programs and services accessible to people with disabilities.
The disability rights section found that the vast majority of communities are aware of their obligations and have made progress toward meeting them. Yet most jurisdictions reviewed by the DOJ were not fully compliant with the ADA and, as a result, 155 agreements were reached to resolve the balance of outstanding issues. In a settlement, a jurisdiction agrees to comply with the ADA within a specified period of time, and the DOJ provides technical assistance to help the jurisdiction comply.