Do First Responders Know How to Help People with Disabilities?

In an opinion piece published on, Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick says first responders need help when it comes to dealing with people who have disabilities. Is she right?

Kendrick cites a recent case involving a deaf man and four Hawthorne, California police officers.

She writes, “When the police were dispatched to a residence where a neighbor reported seeing what looked like a burglary going on, four officers swarmed to the scene. They shouted at the ‘suspect’ to stop, but he just kept carrying boxes from the back porch of the home. Then they swarmed in a more physical way, allegedly putting him in a chokehold, shocking him with a taser, punching him repeatedly, and ultimately, ‘escorting’ the unconscious man to the hospital.”

Everyone will have their own opinion on whether or not the police handled that situation well; however what Kendrick didn’t tell us, is that the “suspect” was deaf. She reveals it in her next paragraph.

“The problem was, initially, that Jonathan Meister, who is deaf, did not hear the order to stop. When he saw the police officers, though, he tried to explain, in American Sign Language, that he is deaf and had his friend’s permission to remove what was his own personal property from the residence. The four officers apparently mistook his gestures to be ones of aggression and resistance. He was initially charged with assaulting officers (charges which were dropped) and now the Greater Los Angeles Agency for the Deaf has filed a lawsuit against the Hawthorne Police Department on his behalf.”

Kendrick goes on to provide a list of other similar incidents involving individuals with disabilities, this time in Ohio, where Kendrick is based.

• “A blind woman was told that she couldn’t verify the identity of the man who violated his restraining order because she couldn’t see him.”

• “A deaf guy was arrested for shoplifting and put in jail without an interpreter on hand to tell him why.”

• “A woman with cognitive disabilities was refused an examination by paramedics because they didn’t understand her symptoms.”

Kendrick concludes her piece by saying, “Police departments everywhere — small towns and big cities — need ongoing, recurring training on dealing with people with disabilities and other differences. And if those hired to provide the training are people with disabilities themselves, it might even stick.”

When you read about four incidents in a row, it certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture for first responders. But that isn’t to say that all first responders are insensitive toward people with disabilities. What has been your personal experience with first responders? Have you encountered stories like these or witnessed the opposite, a first responder who knew how to act and took the time to be considerate?


For more information, see Deborah Kendrick’s original piece here: