This has been a week of interviews. And it's only Tuesday. I did an interview over the weekend on the subject of people who are LGBT and who have a disability. That one was a fairly straight forward one where I felt fairly certain of both the subject and the aims of the writer, further, I knew the magazine he was writing for and I knew that they understood, deeply, the disability community.
Then I did one yesterday regarding the situation, here in Toronto, where a man with a disability died in an interaction with the police. There is a lot of upset and a lot of explosive language regarding the issue. When I was asked for the interview I said 'yes' immediately. That is my 'default position' on interviews. If I know anything about the topic, I don't turn them down. Many of my colleagues are, rightfully, fearful about how they will be represented by the press. Others are concerned about making comments because they are too involved in the situations like this and are rightfully worried about conflicts and confidentiality. I am fearful and concerned, too, but about other things - like how the media will represent issues important to the disability community if no one in the community speaks to them about it.
A couple of issues came up in our discussion. One was about how someone with a disability might react when confronted with an authority figure who is approaching them in a serious investigation. Well, I don't like attributing to disability what doesn't belong. I tried to explain that anyone in that situation would experience panic and confusion and that the same would be true for someone with a disability. That experience might be multiplied for someone who has limited abilities to communicate, but that there is a 'universality' that can't be overlooked. I tried to say all this because I don't like the idea of someone with a disability being made 'other' in situations that simply don't apply. I believe that most people who are put through rigorous or harsh questioning about crimes they didn't commit would experience debilitation, fear, and anxiety. Why would people with disabilities be different, why would the experience be worse?
The other main issue that came up was that some have said that it seems to be dangerous to be a person with a disability simply out there on the streets, that the police may simply target them. Wow. That was something that I think I may have responded to a bit passionately. I thought, but did not say, that it seemed that the death of this individual was being used as a tool to further the ends and purposes of those who may not be entirely committed to disability issues - that maybe the intent was to use this death to illustrate that the police are out of control, and that disability could be used to further that aim. But what I said was that the idea that the police have harsh or negative attitudes towards people with disabilities but that the rest of the population had wonderful, warm and welcoming attitudes was patently untrue. I said that the issue had to be seen in the context of the larger issue of people with disabilities experiencing harsh and brutal interactions with the community at large.
In my workshops on bullying and teasing, people with disabilities, almost to a one, state that they experience this on a daily basis. Research shows that the majority of people with intellectual disabilities who live in the community, live in fear. That fear is not of the police, but of their neighbours, of those in their workplaces, of those in their churches, schools, community centers. As a person with a physical disability, I brace myself every time I go out into the community. I never know what I'm going to face, who fate is going to put in my path. I never know what kind of bigotry I will face, but I know I will face bigotry every time. The police are members of a community and a society that devalue and stereotype people with disabilities. That means, of course, that the police need to have information and training that allows them to have an understanding of the broad diversity of communities that they will be required to deal with - disability is one of those communities.
People with intellectual disabilities are not 'innocents' and people with intellectual disabilities are not always 'innocent' - that they will need to be questioned is a given, how they react to that interview will be, like the rest of us, fully dependant on the approach and the attitude of those doing the questioning. Should police have the skill set to interview someone with a disability? Um ... yes. Should they have training in how to approach an interview with someone who has a disability? Um ... of course. I have seen police be incredibly supportive and wonderfully skilled in interviewing people with intellectual disabilities who have been victims of crime. The very first time I saw this done well, I knew it was possible for that skill of that one officer to be generalized to others.
There were other questions that were more specific to the situation that I was being called about, and I tried to respond - but only with a 'what I read in the paper' expertise. I reflected about how putting a man who doesn't use spoken language, but prefers to sign or gesture, into handcuffs may be about the worst decision that could be made. It would be like trying to question someone after taping their mouth shut. I reflected that as soon as they had information that the man had an intellectual disability and did not speak, their methods of interaction needed to change. Information like that should have an impact on how one is questioned. If the situation happened as had been reported I would have much to say in any debriefing of those involved in the altercation. I also reflected that the media's caricature of this man as a 'child in an adult's body' was offensive to him, his adulthood, his life experiences.
I hung up from the interview not knowing what was going to happen next. I'm not sure I said anything that he expected that I would say. I'm not sure that I said anything that those who are fomenting protest would have wanted me to say. I'm not sure that I said anything that those within the community living movement would have hoped that I'd say. But, I said what I said because I believe it to be true - and that's all I can do in these situations.
So, now I wait for the article and the fallout from the decision to say yes to answer questions that are important to me, both as a person with a disability and as a care provider with others who have disabilities. I can only hope that someone, somewhere, is pleased that I answered the phone yesterday.
Update: the article is now up and on line and can be read here. Let me know what you think.