Many people have disabilities that are not visible, such as autism, deafness, and ADHD, and if law enforcement were aware of these disabilities, it may alter the manner in which they interact with these individuals. That’s why lawmakers in Colorado, for the second time in three years, are considering allowing individuals to voluntarily disclose their disability information to the Department of Revenue, allowing a discreet symbol to be added to their state issued identification cards or driver licenses indicating that they have a disability.
The bill under consideration right now, HB21-1014 (PDF), would also allow for a computer notation indicating that a driver or regular passenger of a vehicle has a disability when running license plates. The symbol would represent all disabilities, including cognitive, neurological, and physical disabilities. House sponsors of this bill are State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Mark Baisley and the Senate sponsor is Jessie Danielson.
This bill would be put in place to protect people living with disabilities, who are equal citizens, as well as law enforcement officers, who routinely encounter people with disabilities, including neurodiversity and mental health disorders, while performing their duties. In Colorado, there have been several instances of individuals with disabilities having force used against them by law enforcement officers, some of which have been found to be excessive and unnecessary. According to a study published in 2016 by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the majority of police brutality cases and up to half of all people killed by police in the United States include a person with a disability. Law enforcement officers may not have adequate training or experience identifying or interacting with people with disabilities such as neurodiversity and mental health disorders and with proper training, both the officers on duty and Colorado’s marginalized population may be better protected. The goal is to reduce or completely eliminate excessive force between officers and individuals with disabilities.
A similar bill (HB16), the first of its kind in the United States, was passed in Alaska in 2017, which allows for people to retain state issued IDs with the letter "I" to indicate an invisible disability. This bill also mandates law enforcement training and the inclusion of steps to take when stopped by police officers to their state’s driver’s handbooks.
While HB21-1014 does not include these requirements, a companion bill, HB21-1122 (PDF), sponsored by State Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood, does include law enforcement training. The purpose of the companion bill is for law enforcement and first responders to understand if a person is being non-compliant due to a disability. The new training guidelines, to be considered by the peace officer standards and training board, would be recommended by a ten person commission, including two people with disabilities, and two parents of a child with a disability.
In 2019, a similar bill in Colorado didn’t make its way out of the first committee, but that version necessitated a form signed by a medical professional indicating that the individual had a disability in order to qualify for the disability symbol. This requirement is not included on the current version as members of the disability community indicated that many times their invisible disabilities are overlooked by professionals. As of July 1, 2010, The Missouri Department of Revenue implemented provisions of HB683, allowing for individuals with disabilities to request a permanent disability indicator on their driver or non-driver license, providing they issue documentation of said disability signed by a physician, physical or occupational therapist, or an authorized healthcare professional.
Having a non-apparent, hidden disability becomes increasingly significant in relation to a person’s contact with law enforcement, so having the ability to voluntarily disclose that information is paramount to creating better interactions between them.
While most states do not have legislation in place to add invisible disability indicators on their licenses, some do offer ID cards that can be applied for and shown at an individual’s discretion. Illinois, for example, provides ID cards to individuals with qualifying disabilities. Information and applications can be obtained by contacting the Secretary of State’s Office at (800) 252-8950. Georgia will place disability symbols on driver’s license or ID cards if verified by a medical doctor. New York currently issues identification cards to individuals with disabilities designed to help interactions with first responders. An application to apply for this card can submitted online on OPWDD’s website, or a hard copy can be printed and mailed using this identification card request form (PDF). There is a pending bill in the New York State Senate (S6447) and an Assembly version of the bill (A8301) in committee now. Utah, Alabama, and Pennsylvania have similar bills they’ve tried to pass and Wisconsin has passed a similar bill, as well.
When opinions were asked on this issue, the majority of individuals responded favorably for passing such legislation, including those in law enforcement. Different members of the disability community also seemed to welcome adding an identifier to ID cards as a way of enhancing protection, understanding, and acceptance.
"I totally agree with adding a symbol to state IDs. I have a visible disability, but I also have a hearing loss in each ear. There are rare occasions when my hearing aids aren’t in my ears because they each need to be repaired. Therefore, this symbol would be an important symbol to have on my ID," said Barbara Graffe.
"I absolutely would be for this as looking at my children you would have no clue they have nonverbal autism and they are going to grow up, and outwardly they look typically developing but they are not and as adults we can’t have things like car seats straps or other ways of identifying so I am all for identifiers on IDs or on bracelets so that law enforcement as well as emergency personnel are aware," said Kristen Savino.
"As a parent of a young adult who is a high-functioning autistic that holds a job and drives, I think it is an amazing idea. I live in fear that he will be pulled over or be involved in a situation where his actions or answers will be construed in a completely different light than he intended," said Donna Cimaglia.
Some people did express their concerns with privacy, but given the fact that adding the symbol is voluntary, it ultimately is the decision of the individual to decide what their comfort level is in adding this discreet symbol to their identification cards or licenses.
"I have a child who has ADHD and a mood disorder, which are not visible. I worry that as she gets older and gains more independence, she’ll come against challenges that trigger her mood. I can’t imagine if she is in a car accident and is scared and hurt — there is a possibility of her misplacing her emotions and lashing out an anyone nearby. So if her ID let police or emergency medical personnel know that information, awesome, but what about when she has to show her license to cash a check, at a doctor’s office, or another seemingly innocuous place? Might people who see that small symbol then treat her differently? I guess I’m just trying to look at it from all different angles. There is incredible potential to help people here. I just worry that the information might be misunderstood or misused," said a concerned parent.
The bills that are pending all seem to address the fact that some people may opt to not have this symbol included on their identification cards, which is why they are making it voluntary. If you would like to voice your opinion on this issue, especially in the states with pending or nonexistent legislation, you may contact your state representatives. If you are seeking more information on the importance of disability identifiers and how to go about gaining a disability identification card, you may visit the Invisible Disabilities® Association.