by Sarah Amin, AAPD Programs Intern
Emergency situations can be a perpetual fear for many of us wheelchair users, not just for our personal safety, but also for the safety of our chairs. For many of us, the wheelchair is much more than simply a mobility device. It is also an expensive piece of equipment and an invaluable component in our lives. So when our chairs are in trouble – we are in trouble!
Several weeks ago, a friend of mine visited to see the sights in D.C. As we toured, I noticed that my wheelchair battery was draining mysteriously quickly. Towards the evening I grew worried that my chair wouldn’t survive, so I decided to call a local accessible taxi service. The taxi coordinator informed me that she could not locate an accessible cab. I tried another accessible taxi company with no better luck. After crawling along in a near panic towards my apartment building, I managed to approach it close enough to see the building, but unfortunately, my time was up. The battery was completely dead, and there we were, stranded on a street corner in the middle of evening traffic. My friend didn’t have the physical strength, and nor would I have obligated her, to manually force my heavy chair up the 2-3 block final stretch towards home. So, what are we taught to do in emergency situations such as these? At my wit’s end, I hailed a police car. I presented my predicament to the officer: “My chair is not operating. I need to reach home before it becomes too dark, there are no accessible vehicles available, and I can’t transfer out of my chair to leave it behind. Are there any emergency vehicles that are wheelchair accessible?”
Perplexed, the officer replied, “Do you want me to shut down the traffic so that you could cross?”
Maybe she misunderstood. “No, my chair is completely out of power, I cannot move.”
“Can’t your friend push you?”
“She physically can’t, and I won’t put her in danger. She is not responsible for me.”
“Should I call an ambulance?”
“But I am not injured!”
“Don’t you have a phone number or something, for an accessible vehicle?”
By this time, my friend and I realized that there was no help for me. Not even from a police officer, whose duty it is to protect and problem-solve. We devised our own plan. She ran to my apartment, returned with my battery charger, and we begged the security personnel in a nearby apartment lobby to allow me to use their electrical outlets to charge the battery. The police officer, on the other hand, didn’t even offer to step out of her car. What was I to conclude? That there must not be a standard protocol for situations in which wheelchair-users are stranded, and if there are, then at least one police officer did not receive the memo!
This personal story is not intended to be an idle complaint. Rather, it’s an example of the type of nightmare that wheelchair users wish to avoid, and of a system of policing that simply isn’t working for individuals with disabilities. If the vehicle of an individual without a physical disability broke down, she could call a tow company and a cab (which are almost always readily available). But what this experience has taught me is that if a wheelchair user is in need of quick transportation due to a device malfunction, we’re on our own.
Because law enforcement agencies are part of local and state governments, they are subject to Title II of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in government services. This applies to every level of service, from enforcing laws and arresting individuals, to receiving complaints and providing medical services. However, as with older buildings and structures, Title II does not require all police stations to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Law enforcement agencies are not required to make alterations or accommodations that would require undue financial burden, as long as other possibilities exist that will provide access to the same programs and services. In this case, if police vehicles with modifications for wheelchair access are not available, the police are required to utilize community resources such as accessible cab companies.
The issue, in my particular case, was that the police officer did not have the adequate skills, knowledge, or training to advise me on better solutions. Not only that, it also seemed that there were no wheelchair accessible police vehicles. As much as it is my responsibility to ensure my own safety, I should have the peace of mind that if I exhausted my own options, my last resort – the police – can provide resources and assistance that I could not provide for myself. Hiring in the Spirit of Service, a research project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, assessed some of the nontraditional skills necessary for police officers today, emphasizing problem-solving and a broad community focus. The project underlines the ability to show initiative, be resourceful, use good judgment, take responsibility, and possess the capacity for empathy and compassion as essential core competencies for law enforcement officials. These traits are necessary for the general population, but especially so for the disability community, for which creativity and initiative are required by law enforcement in the absence of fully accessible buildings and vehicles.