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Our latest efforts to protect our clients and loved ones in police interactions

By Astrid Zuniga, caregiver and UDW Vice President

As an active member and elected leader of my union, I wear a lot of hats. But first and foremost, I am a mother. And for the past two years, I have been devoted to protecting the safety of my family—and the safety of all our loved ones with disabilities.

I’ve written about my son Manuel before. He lives with autism and intellectual disabilities that make him prone to wandering and aggressive behavior. I worry every day that his fearlessness will get him into trouble, especially if he comes into contact with a police officer.

I worry that a police officer won’t see what I see when I look at my son. They won’t know how much he loves music—especially Nora Jones and Beethoven. Or about his favorite things to watch on his tablet: Dora Explorer, Blues Clues, and Disney movies.

Instead they’ll see a strong and aggressive young man, one who doesn’t respond to their commands to stop or calm down.

But it’s not just Manuel who is at risk in these situations. People with emotional, physical, cognitive and sensory disabilities are nearly 44 percent more likely to be arrested by age 28 than their non-disabled counterparts.

Many of our clients suffer from disabilities that are not widely understood. Their behaviors or actions–or lack of action–may be interpreted as being defiant or drug induced, when in fact it part of their disability or a lack of the proper medications. This is why our union has set out to find a better way to educate and train first responders, and to create better alert systems and tools to protect these vulnerable members of our communities.

That’s why we recently held a public hearing with legislators, first responders, and members of the disability community at the State Capitol, led by Assemblymember Jim Cooper.

My fellow UDW members and I joined folks from around the state who have developed effective and useful tools to give law enforcement and other first responders the information they need to protect people like my son and deescalate situations rather than use force.

Overall the hearing was a success. The lawmakers were moved by stories from parents like us. They really seemed to understand the fear we live with every day, and they pledged to work with us to find real solutions.

Our next steps are to get lawmakers to the table to draft the statewide solutions we so desparately need. At the same time, we are going to continue to explore new strategies and technologies that parents like us can use on our own to keep our loved ones safe.

Real change takes time, but I won’t stop working until we make a safer world for people like Manuel.