Your Rights! People with Disabilities and Law Enforcement


Your Rights! People with Disabilities and Law Enforcement

Many people with disabilities are hurt or killed by police. Disability Rights California fights to end police contact with people with disabilities and expand services in the community that keep people safe.

Disclaimer: This publication is legal information only and is not legal advice about your individual situation. It is current as of the date posted. We try to update our materials regularly. However, laws are regularly changing. If you want to make sure the law has not changed, contact DRC or another legal office.

Many people with disabilities are injured or killed by police. Disability Rights California fights to end police contact with people with disabilities and expand community-based services that keep people safe.

This document addresses how people with disabilities may assert their legal rights when interacting with police. While knowing your rights may help, you have the best judgment about what will keep you safe.

1.  Do I have a right to a reasonable accommodation so I can effectively communicate with police?

Communication barriers exist. Your disabilities may make it hard to follow a police officer’s orders. For example, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may not be able to hear what the officer is saying. People with physical disabilities may not be able to follow an officer’s order to get on the ground. Officers may incorrectly think stimming, slurred speech, or shaking are threatening behaviors.

The police are required to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that officers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities.1 As a person with a disability, you have the right to ask for a “reasonable accommodation” when interacting with the police. Asking for a reasonable accommodation means you are asking the police to change how they usually do things in order to be more fair to you. These are examples of reasonable accommodations you can ask the police to make for you:

  • Speaking in a calm, quiet way;
  • Speaking slowly, clearly, and visibly for speech- or lip-reading;
  • Providing devices and interpretation services to properly communicate;
  • Allowing someone to stim to process anxiety, instead of assuming that stimming means they did something bad;
  • Using simple commands, instead of complex sentences;
  • Allowing a person enough time to process and understand the officers’ orders;
  • Asking a person with mobility needs about the best way to move them, and being careful not to break their mobility device;
  • Reading documents or written instructions out loud for a person with a visual impairment;
  • Stepping back to create space to have a full view of the body;
  • Providing a qualified sign language interpreter.

Letting officers know that you have a disability and need a reasonable accommodation may increase your chances of staying safe.

2.  What are my rights if I encounter police at school?

Police officers regularly respond to minor, non-violent incidents at school, rather than parents or teachers. Unfortunately, Black students with disabilities are more likely to encounter police at school than other students. These encounters can hurt students.

Students with disabilities have a right to reasonable accommodations at school, including accommodations when interacting with police on campus. For example, school staff and police officers may be required to provide the student with an accommodation if it is in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. School staff may also be required to make an accommodation if they know the student has a disability. Accommodations may include:

  • Calling the student’s caretaker before talking to the student;
  • Ensuring the student’s caretaker is there before searching the student or their belongings;
  • De-escalating the situation before calling the police; and
  • Ensuring that the student receives the right medical or mental health care before calling the police.

3.  What are my rights if someone calls the police on my behalf?

The police are not always the best people to respond to medical or mental health emergencies. Talk with your friends, family, or other people you trust about ways that you can help yourself or ways that others can help you during a crisis. Other options include calling 988 or a crisis response team in your area.

If someone calls the police for you due to an emergency, make sure that person knows about your disabilities, medications, or accommodations that you need. Tell the officers you are not a threat to them and you are not resisting. If you cannot explain this to the officers, ask someone to do it for you. You can also wear a medical alert bracelet or carry a medical alert card that lets the officers know you have a disability and need accommodations. Some police departments let you have a safety plan on file with information about your disability and the reasonable accommodations you need when interacting with police.

Reasonable accommodation laws apply even when you are arrested. For example, if the handcuffs cause you pain, let the officers know. The police are not required to handcuff you, and they must consider other options if the handcuffs make your disability worse. If you have a hearing impairment and use your hands to sign or write notes, you can ask them to handcuff you in front of your body.

After your encounter with the police, you can request a copy of the police report. If possible, get the names and badge numbers of the officers.

Remember, you have the right to remain silent and ask to speak with a lawyer. If you have a question about a police encounter, call our intake line at (800) 776-5746 or TTY (800) 719-5798. Here is information about DRC’s excessive force lawsuit. Additional resources:

  • 1. U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section, Commonly Asked Questions About the Americans with Disabilities Act and Law Enforcement