A new program in Colorado may help people with disabilities and their caregivers get more appropriate responses from first responders.
The Disability Symbol Identifier program passed into law in 2021 and is now available to Colorado residents and drivers. The program allows Coloradoans with disabilities to add a signifier to their driver’s license, state-issued ID, and/or vehicle registration. This signifier will alert first responders, such as police and emergency medical personnel, that the person has a disability that might impair their ability to communicate or affect their interactions. The signifier is particularly helpful for people who have invisible disabilities—disabilities that might not be initially apparent.
Covered disabilities may include cognitive disabilities, neurological diversities, mental health disorders, sensory needs, chronic illness, chronic pain, and physical disabilities.
The new program has been generally praised by the disability community, particularly since the program is completely voluntary.
People with disabilities have reason to worry about first responders understanding their needs. A comprehensive study from the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2016 revealed that half of police-related killings involve people with disabilities. According to the Arc of the United States, a national disability advocacy organization, “People with disabilities are more likely to experience victimization, be arrested, be charged with a crime, and serve longer prison sentences once convicted, than those without disabilities.”
Altercations and negative interactions with police and other first responders often are related to miscommunication, ableist prejudices, and misread of a situation. For instance, a person having a seizure or dealing with a traumatic brain injury may appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol or be interpreted as noncompliant.
One recent technique that has been used to reduce negative interactions has been to introduce co-responder models for incidents involving people with disabilities, particularly people with mental health disabilities. In this model, a police responder is paired with a mental health professional to attend a crisis, with the hope that the person can be supported with a therapeutic approach, rather than a criminal one.
Southwest Colorado has also been quick to adopt Crisis Intervention Team training, which offers first responders specialized training on how to support the needs of people with disabilities appropriately. The goal of the program is to help people with disabilities avoid arrest and receive the right services.
Even with the implementation of these programs, many people with disabilities fear police and other first responders due to past experience. The intent of the Disability Symbol Identifier is to improve interactions between first responders and people with disabilities.
Coloradoans have two options to participate in the program. One is to add a disability identification symbol to your driver’s license or Colorado identification card. The other option is to add an identifier to your vehicle registration, which can identify that not only the driver, but also frequent passengers who may need support during an accident or crisis.
You can find more information, as well as forms that must be completed by your medical provider, at https://dmv.colorado.gov/.
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