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Database lets law enforcement know if they stop someone with a communication disability

Communication disability database is voluntary
Chris Page
Posted at 10:31 PM, Feb 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-04 23:23:06-05

DUBLIN, Ohio — Getting pulled over while driving can be a nerve-racking experience for anyone, but for people with communication disabilities, traffic stops can be frightening and confusing.

The state of Ohio wants more Ohioans with communication disabilities, such as autism, deafness or cerebral palsy, to sign up for a voluntary database that lets law enforcement know when the person they're pulling over has a disability.

For Chris Page, what happened in March 2016 left a mark.

"I still think about it a lot, even though it’s been three or four years," he said.

Chris, who has autism, was pulled over in Dublin, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, by officers who suspected he was under the influence.

"When I saw the lights on, I really got anxiety I was being pulled over," Page said. "I felt like I was going to get arrested and taken to jail, kind of thing."

Page failed a field sobriety test, something drivers with autism may struggle with due to their disability. But a breathalyzer and urine test later helped clear him of the charge.

His story is now part of a new campaign from Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities to let people with communication disabilities know about that database.

"I watched that police cam, which was, I’m serious, we just sobbed," Diane Page, his mother, said.

age has spent the last three and a half years pushing for change to protect people with communication disabilities.

"I realized that this was something not only for Chris but that we could really make a difference, that needed to happen," Page said.

That doesn't just mean drivers, but also passengers with communication disabilities, who might be thrown off by flashing lights or the sight of their parent or caregiver interacting with a police officer.

When the database became law back in 2018, the Pages signed Chris up right away. The verification form, available on the OOD website, must be signed by a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist who can verify the person's disability. That person's name is then entered into a database accessible to law enforcement during a traffic stop. It does not identify which disability the person has.

"It’s just saying you need to be aware that you may need to maybe change your tactics when you’re interacting with this operator of a vehicle that you’ve pulled over for a traffic stop," said Kevin Miller, director of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities.

He said that limits any potential for stereotyping someone based on his or her disability.

"Just because you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism," Miller said. "Not everybody is the same on that spectrum. Same thing with being deaf or hard of hearing. How someone communicates, how they might have a difficulty because they’re deaf, doesn’t mean you’re going to have the same interactions with a different person, just because they’re deaf."

Miller, who has a law enforcement background, said his own son has autism and, at 15, expressed interest in wanting to drive.

"I had a mock pull-over session with him and he did absolutely the wrong thing in every situation," Miller said. "Drastic movements towards his wallet, wasn’t making any eye contact with the officer."

Not only that, he said, but someone with autism may not understand figures of speech.

"We’ve seen that in many traffic stops, where someone will say, 'Hey, where’s the fire?'" Miller said. "Someone who’s autistic doesn’t understand what you’re asking is 'What's your hurry?'"

He said this database doesn't solve everything, but along with law enforcement training, it's another tool in the toolbox to limit misunderstandings and situations like what Chris experienced. He noted there is support for training from the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association, the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Fraternal Order of Police.

Miller said that approximately 14% of Ohio's population have self-reported a disability, or about 1.7 million out of 11.8 million Ohioans.

"Driving means employment and independence, so this is just one part and parcel of what we’re trying to do to make Ohio understand what it means to have disabilities," Miller said.

It's something that has made a difference for Chris Page.

"Chris worried every day for four months, never letting this off of his mind," Diane Page said. "For a long time, he avoided the area he got stopped in."

Chris Page feels more comfortable driving now than he did before the database, and he hopes other drivers with disabilities do too.

"They shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when they’re driving if they do get pulled over," Page said.