Why no talk of Gray's disabilities?

Might Freddie Gray's fateful encounter with police gone differently if not for his developmental disability?

According to what I've read, Freddie Gray was exposed to lead in early childhood. This resulted in neurological damage, developmental impacts and learning disabilities. Yet, I have seen no discussion of how disability issues factored into the tragic events surrounding Freddie Gray's death ("Six officers charged in death of Freddie Gray," May 1).

I am a certified rehabilitation counselor with almost two decades of experience working with disabled adults. Currently I am the manager of programs and education at Towson University's Hussman Center for Adults with Autism where I also teach disability studies courses. Individuals with disabilities resulting from childhood lead exposure have brain-based differences that impact self-regulation, social cognition and decision-making. When individuals with these types of developmental disabilities are frightened, they tend to dart away. Frequently, these adults lack the executive functioning skills needed to manage or effectively self-advocate in high-stress moments. These adults have social and communication challenges that may be too easy for police to misinterpret as non-cooperative behavior.

Why is no one discussing Freddie Gray's disabilities? Historically, disabled persons have had a higher risk for ineffective interactions with law enforcement personnel. Recent examples in our geographic area include the cases of Nellie Latson and Robert Saylor. This is not to discount factors of racism at all. But disability discrimination or "ableism" is the most hidden "ism" of all and our society is just not dealing with it. In Freddie Gray's case, racial discrimination is compounded by disability discrimination and when we ignore this fact, any solution to the problem of police bias and brutality will be incomplete.

The police must be trained in how to respond to individuals with developmental disabilities of all races. This does not mean we make excuses for the actions of adults with disabilities — visible or invisible. All adults must be held to the same standards of the law. What is does mean is that people who communicate, think, learn and emote differently must have the accommodations, supports and guidance needed to level the playing field. This also means that civil workers in a city like Baltimore in which hundreds of children have sustained lead poisoning must receive training to ensure public safety for all citizens.

We have been promising persons with disabilities the right to full community integration for decades. This promise rings hollow when society refuses to analyze and to discuss openly how we collectively and personally respond to the diversity of disability.

Zosia Zaks, Towson

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