Recently, the Disability Symbol Identification Document bill (HB21-1014) was introduced in the Colorado General Assembly. The bill adds an option for a person with a disability to request that the Department of Revenue place a “disability identifier symbol” on their state driver’s license or identification card. The proponents of this bill believe that this symbol will cause police officers to slow down and ask for information from the individual if they are acting strangely or cannot respond in the event of being pulled over or stopped. However, this legislation is fraught with problems and takes the wrong approach to supporting law enforcement in interacting with people with disabilities.
Symbols without context have little to no meaning and can lead to confusion. For example, a chili pepper next to a menu item gives no real information about how spicy the meal is. Truly understanding how the food tastes requires a conversation with the server.
Now imagine trying to convey complex information about disability through a simple symbol without additional context. The proposed disability symbol only tells law enforcement that an individual has a disability and to “handle with care.” It cannot convey nuances such as whether that person requires a licensed professional or whether they can function without additional supports. Even more crucial, it cannot provide which steps need to be taken to keep law enforcement and the individual safe.
This bill also invites potential discrimination based on disability. We use our driver’s license when we write checks at businesses, when we open a checking account or get a loan, get on an airplane, or buy liquor, to name a few instances. It would be easy for a person checking the ID to raise questions about whether that person should be doing any of those things.
In addition, the bill does not require proof of a disability. This could lead to abuse of the symbol if individuals without disabilities believe that the symbol grants them additional privileges or special treatment. It also adds yet another layer of complexity to the discussion around eligibility for disability benefits. Devoid of any documentation, the symbol could add more confusion to already complicated public policy conversations.
For decades, the disability community has worked to empower members to speak on their own behalf. They have provided platforms and support so that individuals have a space to disclose their disability when and where they want to. HB21-1014 takes away that right. It reduces people with disabilities to a label instead of recognizing them as unique individuals with diverse backgrounds and needs.
A symbol cannot de-escalate a tense situation. It cannot provide context or promote understanding. Only human beings engaging in real conversations can do that. We need a better approach that involves educating people with disabilities and those in law enforcement about strategies that result in better outcomes. While peace officers get basic disability awareness training in the academy, it doesn’t go far enough to provide real understanding of the wide variety of disabilities they may encounter. We owe it to law enforcement to supply them with the additional training and tools they need to do their jobs while keeping themselves and citizens safe. And we owe it to individuals with disabilities to honor their rights and privacy rather than reducing them to faceless labels.
We respectfully ask Colorado representatives to reject this ineffective and discriminatory bill. Instead, we urge members of the General Assembly to use the funds allocated in this bill ($83,000) to establish concrete measures that promote real change, including education, training, and dialogue between law enforcement and the disability community.
Patricia Yeager, Ph.D., is the CEO of The Independence Center in Colorado Springs, the local home of civil rights for people with disabilities.