"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."Project Civic Access
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.
Technical assistance materials have been developed to help communities immediately come into full compliance with the requirements of Title II, or Subchapter II, of the 1990 act.
"We realize we can't be in every single jurisdiction in this country," says King. "Jurisdictions want to be in compliance but sometimes they just don't have the information or the expertise to come into compliance."ADA technical assistance
Many technical assistance documents can be found at www.ADA.gov. In the center of the site's home page, for example, law enforcement managers and officers can click on ADA Information for Law Enforcement to find information just for them.
"If someone has questions about what they're getting from the Web site, they can call and talk to an ADA specialist, and we help them apply whatever the law requires to their own situation," King says.
About a year ago, the DOJ provided agencies nationwide with information about how to interact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Communicating with People Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers is an eight-panel pocket guide, can now be found on the ADA's Web site, along with a publication titled Model Policy for Law Enforcement on Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, which is a four-page document for agencies to use when they're adopting a policy on effective communication with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Last year, the department also sent out an eight-part video series titled Police Response to People with Disabilities. The video is available online and is designed for roll call training. It shows law enforcement interactions with people who have mobility disabilities, mental illnesses, mental retardation, epilepsy or seizure disorders, speech disabilities, deafness or hearing impairments, and blindness or low vision. Each video segment is five to 10 minutes long and helps allay fears that could arise when an officer interacts with a person who has a disability with which an officer is unfamiliar. It removes some of the stereotypes associated with disabilities, says King.
"Improving law enforcement response to people with disabilities, for the most part, does not really cost much money," she adds. "It primarily requires training and understanding."
While some materials on the Web site are law enforcement-specific, others are not.
For example, An ADA Guide for Local Governments: Making Community Emergency Preparedness and Response Programs Accessible to People with Disabilities, provides guidance on preparing for and carrying out emergency response programs in a manner that results in the services being accessible to people with disabilities. This guide includes information for others in addition to law enforcement.
Another example of a publication for local governments that can be found at www.ADA.gov is Cities and Counties: First Steps Toward Solving Common ADA Problems. In it, the DOJ says that people with disabilities are commonly counted out of civic programs and activities because it is assumed they will not be able to or will not want to participate. People with disabilities are also often overlooked when governments build facilities or design programs without thinking about potential accessibility obstacles. Removing barriers to access in pre-ADA facilities — or moving programs from pre-ADA facilities to newer and more accessible facilities or even providing those programs in alternately accessible ways — will ensure full and independent participation opportunities for people with disabilities while minimizing costs, the DOJ explains.Physical barriers
Common problems causing physical barriers are numerous and, according to the DOJ, happen when:
- Architects and contractors follow only local building codes, which do not ensure compliance with the ADA. Facilities constructed or altered after January 26, 1992, must comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design or with the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS).
- Objects such as pay phones and drinking fountains can cause injury to people who are blind or who have low vision because the objects protrude into walkways and are positioned so they cannot be detected by someone using a cane.
- Permanent door signs do not have Braille, high-contrast and raised lettering, and are not located on the latch side of the door.
- Parking areas have too few accessible spaces, no van-accessible spaces or access aisles, or have access aisles that are too narrow.
- Routes to building entrances have steps but no ramp, or ramps that are too steep or go too long without level rest areas; and handrails are not provided on both sides.
- Round doorknob hardware is used, preventing someone who cannot grasp or a turn a doorknob from entering.
- In lavatories: the door is too narrow; there is not enough maneuvering space immediately inside or outside the door; paper towels, soap and toilet paper are located out of reach; the toilet is placed too close or too far from the wall; grab bars are missing or are too short; the sink counter is too high; or the sink has exposed hot water and drain pipes, which can cause serious burns.
The ADA, to some, may first bring to mind images of physical barriers such as curbs and stairs, but removing communications barriers is equally as important. Title II of the ADA does not require a public entity to take any action if it can demonstrate that the action would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the service, program or activity, or undue financial and administrative burden.
Two common problems with communications, according to the DOJ, include:
- Information that is only available in standard print format. All written materials prepared for public distribution should be accessible in formats such as large print, Braille and digital formats (for example, e-mail) that can be read aloud using a computer.
- Public meetings that are held without audio amplification, sign language interpreters, real-time transcription services, etc. As a result, those who are deaf or hard of hearing may not be able to fully participate in live presentations or interactive discussions. Upon request, sign language interpreters, real-time captioning, and assistive listening devices should be provided based on the needs of the participants.
In recent years, law enforcement has been improving 911 services and working to remove barriers so people who are deaf or hard of hearing can communicate with 911 dispatchers. Local law enforcement call centers together with the U.S. Attorney's offices have worked to equip 911 systems with teletypewriters (TTYs) or equivalent technology at each call-taking station and to train dispatchers to consistently query all silent calls to determine if they are TTY calls.
With new communications technology emerging continually, accessibility must remain a priority. People who are deaf or hard of hearing, for example, today may use personal digital assistants (PDAs) and e-mail instead of telephones or TTYs.
"We're working with the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can provide information from cell phones, handheld devices and other technologies," King reports.
Work to educate local communities continues here as well.Accessible Web sites
New technology leads to new areas requiring accessibility.
Many agencies have created Web sites to keep citizens informed about what's going on at the agency and within the community. But if a Web site depends exclusively on graphics for content or navigation, then those who are blind and who use "talking" screen-reader technology may not be able to use the Web sites because screen readers and refreshable Braille displays cannot interpret graphics even if the images are pictures of text. They only read text. Adding a line of simple HTML code to provide text for each image and graphic will enable a user with a vision disability to understand what it is. PDFs or other image-based formats are often not accessible to blind people who use screen readers or to people with low vision. In addition to PDFs, documents should be provided in alternative text-based formats such as HTML or Rich Text Format. Web page designers also should keep in mind that some Internet users need to be able to manipulate color and font settings to make pages readable.
To create accessible Web sites, the DOJ suggests that departments:
- Have their Web master and staff read the DOJ's technical assistance document, Accessibility of State and Local Government Web sites to People with Disabilities.
- Establish, implement and post online a policy that Web pages will be accessible, and create a process for implementation.
- Ensure that all new and modified Web pages and content are accessible.
- Develop and implement a plan for making existing Web content more accessible.
- Provide a way for online visitors to request accessible information or services by posting a telephone number or e-mail address on the home page.
- Periodically (at least once a year) enlist people with disabilities to test your pages for ease of use.
To help agencies determine if they are fully compliant with federal disabilities regulations, the ADA offers checklists in its publication, ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments. The tool kit, available online, provides practical guidance and action steps.
"One of the points that we try to emphasize is that, for the most part, most things can be done relatively easily once agencies are made aware of what needs to be done," King says. She gives an example: People frequently don't understand how to deal with someone who has had a seizure or who might be in the middle of having a seizure. With education and understanding, unnecessary restraints or unnecessary detainment can be eliminated.
The DOJ encourages state and local government officials to use the tool kit to learn:
- How to survey facilities and identify common architectural barriers for people with disabilities.
- How to identify red flags indicating that their programs, services, activities and facilities may have common ADA compliance problems.
- How to remove the barriers and fix common ADA compliance problems.
State and local governments are not required to use the tool kit but they are required to comply with Title II of the ADA. The tool kit helps state and local officials begin to set up an accessibility audit.
Chapter 1 addresses "ADA Basics: Statute and Regulations." Chapter 2 is titled "ADA Coordinator, Notice & Grievance Procedure: Administrative Requirements Under Title II of the ADA." Chapters 3 and 4 address ensuring effective communications. Chapter 5 looks at Web site accessibility. Chapter 6 is titled "Curb Ramps and Pedestrian Crossings," and Chapter 7 looks at emergency management.
More chapters of the tool kit are in progress. After all of the chapters of the tool kit are finished this fall, the DOJ plans to conduct train-the-trainer-type seminars.
"We need to constantly be vigilant and do as much as we can," King says. "Law enforcement services are very important. Unnecessary detainment or incarceration are things you really want to avoid. With more training and more knowledge out there, we hope we can do a better job."
Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at email@example.com.