COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT
AND LAW ENFORCEMENT
Police officers, sheriff's
deputies, and other law enforcement personnel have always interacted with
persons with disabilities and, for many officers and deputies, the
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may mean few changes in the way they
respond to the public. To respond to questions that may arise, this
document offers common sense suggestions to assist law enforcement
agencies in complying with the ADA. The examples presented are drawn from
real-life situations as described by police officers or encountered by the
Department of Justice in its enforcement of the ADA.
1. Q: What is the ADA?
A: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a
Federal civil rights law. It gives Federal civil rights protections to
individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals
on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It
guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in State
and local government services, public accommodations, employment,
transportation, and telecommunications.
2. Q: How does the ADA affect my law enforcement
A: Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination
against people with disabilities in State and local governments
services, programs, and employment. Law enforcement agencies are covered
because they are programs of State or local governments, regardless of
whether they receive Federal grants or other Federal funds. The ADA
affects virtually everything that officers and deputies do, for example:
- receiving citizen complaints;
- interrogating witnesses;
- arresting, booking, and holding suspects;
- operating telephone (911) emergency
- providing emergency medical services;
- enforcing laws;
- and other duties.
3. Q: Who does the ADA protect?
A: The ADA covers a wide range of individuals with
disabilities. An individual is considered to have a "disability" if he
or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one
or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is
regarded as having such an impairment.
Major life activities include such things as caring for one's self,
performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing,
learning, and working. To be substantially limited means that such
activities are restricted in the manner, condition, or duration in which
they are performed in comparison with most people.
- The ADA also protects people who are discriminated
against because of their association with a person with a disability.
Example: Police receive a call from a woman who complains that
someone has broken into her residence. The police department keeps a
list of dwellings where people with AIDS are known to reside. The
woman's residence is on the list because her son has AIDS. Police fail
to respond to her call, because they fear catching the HIV virus. The
officers have discriminated against the woman on the basis of her
association with an individual who has AIDS.
4. Q: What about someone who uses illegal
A: Nothing in the ADA prevents officers and deputies
from enforcing criminal laws relating to an individuals current use or
possession of illegal drugs.
II. Interacting with People with Disabilities
5. Q: What are some common problems that people with
disabilities have with law enforcement?
A: Unexpected actions taken by some individuals with
disabilities may be misconstrued by officers or deputies as suspicious
or illegal activity or uncooperative behavior.
Example: An officer approaches a vehicle and asks the driver
to step out of the car. The driver, who has a mobility disability,
reaches behind the seat to retrieve her assistive device for walking.
This appears suspicious to the officer.
- Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who
have speech disabilities or mental retardation, or who are blind or
visually impaired may not recognize or be able to respond to police
directions. These individuals may erroneously be perceived as
Example: An officer yells "freeze" to an individual who is
running from an area in which a crime has been reported. The individual,
who is deaf, cannot hear the officer and continues to run. The officer
mistakenly believes that the individual is fleeing from the scene.
Similarly, ordering a suspect who is visually impaired to get over
"there" is likely to lead to confusion and misunderstanding, because the
suspect may have no idea where the officer is pointing.
- Some people with disabilities may have a staggering
gait or slurred speech related to their disabilities or the
medications they take. These characteristics, which can be associated
with neurological disabilities, mental/emotional disturbance, or
hypoglycemia, may be misperceived as intoxication.
Example: An officer observes a vehicle with one working
headlight and pulls the vehicle over. When the driver hands the
registration to the officer, the officer notices that the driver's hand
is trembling and her speech is slurred. The officer concludes that the
individual is under the influence of alcohol, when in fact the symptoms
are caused by a neurological disability.
Example: A call comes in from a local restaurant that a
customer is causing a disturbance. When the responding officer arrives
at the scene, she discovers a 25-year-old man swaying on his feet and
grimacing. He has pulled the table cloth from the table. The officer
believes that the man has had too much to drink and is behaving
aggressively, when in fact he is having a seizure.
What can be done to avoid these situations?
Training, sensitivity, and awareness will help to ensure equitable
treatment of individuals with disabilities as well as effective law
enforcement. For example:
- When approaching a car with visible signs that a
person with a disability may be driving (such as a designated license
plate or a hand control) , the police officer should be aware that the
driver may reach for a mobility device.
- Using hand signals, or calling to people in a crowd to
signal for a person to stop, may be effective ways for an officer to
get the attention of a deaf individual.
- When speaking, enunciate clearly and slowly to ensure
that the individual understands what is being said.
- Finally, typical tests for intoxication, such as
walking a straight line, will be ineffective for individuals whose
disabilities cause unsteady gait. Other tests, like breathalyzers,
will provide more accurate results and reduce the possibility of false
6. Q: What if someone is demonstrating threatening
behavior because of his or her disability?
A: Police officers may, of course, respond
appropriately to real threats to health or safety, even if an
individuals actions are a result of her or his disability. But it is
important that police officers are trained to distinguish behaviors that
pose a real risk from behaviors that do not, and to recognize when an
individual, such as someone who is having a seizure or exhibiting signs
of psychotic crisis, needs medical attention. It is also important that
behaviors resulting from a disability not be criminalized where no crime
has been committed. Avoid these scenarios:
- A store owner calls to report that an apparently
homeless person has been in front of the store for an hour, and
customers are complaining that he appears to be talking to himself.
The individual, who has mental illness, is violating no loitering or
panhandling laws. Officers arriving on the scene arrest him even
though he is violating no laws.
- Police receive a call in the middle of the night about
a teenager with mental illness who is beyond the control of her
parents. All attempts to get services for the teenager at that hour
fail, so the responding officer arrests her until he can get her into
treatment. She ends up with a record, even though she committed no
7. Q: What procedures should law enforcement officers
follow to arrest and transport a person who uses a
A: Standard transport practices may be dangerous for
many people with mobility disabilities. Officers should use caution not
to harm an individual or damage his or her wheelchair. The best approach
is to ask the person what type of transportation he or she can use, and
how to lift or assist him or her in transferring into and out of the
Example: An individual with a disability is removed from his
wheelchair and placed on a bench in a paddy wagon. He is precariously
strapped to the bench with his own belt. When the vehicle begins to
move, he falls off of the bench and is thrown to the floor of the
vehicle where he remains until arriving at the station.
- Some individuals who use assistive devices like
crutches, braces, or even manual wheelchairs might be safely
transported in patrol cars.
- Safe transport of other individuals who use manual or
power wheelchairs might require departments to make minor
modifications to existing cars or vans, or to use lift-equipped vans
or buses. Police departments may consider other community resources,
e.g., accessible taxi services.
8. Q: What steps should officers follow to
communicate effectively with an individual who is blind or visually
A: It is important for officers to identify
themselves and to state clearly and completely any directions or
instructions -- including any information that is posted viually.
Officers must read out loud in full any documents that a person who is
blind or visually impaired needs to sign. Before taking photos or
fingerprints, it is a good idea to describe the procedures in advance so
that the individual will know what to expect.
9. Q: Do police personnel need to take special
precautions when providing emergency medical services to someone who has
HIV or AIDS?
A: Persons with HIV or AIDS should be treated just
like any other person requiring medical attention. In fact, emergency
medical service providers are required routinely to treat all
persons as if they are infectious for HIV, Hepatitis B, or other
bloodborne pathogens, by practicing universal precautions. Many people
do not know that they are infected with a bloodborne pathogen, and there
are special privacy considerations that may cause those who know they
are infected not to disclose their infectious status.
- Universal precautions for emergency service providers
include the wearing of gloves, a mask, and protective eyewear, and,
where appropriate, the proper disinfection or disposal of contaminated
medical equipment. Protective barriers like gloves should be used
whenever service providers are exposed to blood.
Example: Police are called to a shopping mall to assist a
teenager who has cut his hand and is bleeding profusely. As long as the
attending officers wear protective gloves, they will not be at risk of
acquiring HIV, Hepatitis B, or any other bloodborne pathogen, while
treating the teenager.
- Refusing to provide medical assistance to a person
because he or she has, or is suspected of having, HIV or AIDS is
Example: Police are called to a shopping mall, where an
individual is lying on the ground with chest pains. The responding
officer asks the individual whether she is currently taking any
medications. She responds that she is taking AZT, a medication commonly
prescribed for individuals who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. The
officer announces to his colleagues that the individual has AIDS and
refuses to provide care. This refusal violates the ADA.
III. Effective Communication
10. Q: Do police departments have to arrange for a
sign language interpreter every time an officer interacts with a person
who is deaf?
A: No. Police officers are required by the ADA to
ensure effective communication with individuals who are deaf or hard of
hearing. Whether a qualified sign language interpreter or other
communication aid is required will depend on the nature of the
communication and the needs of the requesting individual. For example,
some people who are deaf do not use sign language for communication and
may need to use a different communication aid or rely on lipreading. In
one-on-one communication with an individual who lipreads, an officer
should face the individual directly, and should ensure that the
communication takes place in a well-lighted area.
- Examples of other communication aids, called
"auxiliary aids and services" in the ADA, that assist people
who are deaf or hard of hearing include the exchange of written notes,
telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD's) (also called text
telephones (TT's) or teletypewriters (TTY's)), telephone handset
amplifiers, assistive listening systems, and videotext displays.
- The ADA requires that the expressed choice of the
individual with the disability, who is in the best position to know
her or his needs, should be given primary consideration in determining
which communication aid to provide. The ultimate decision is made by
the police department. The department should honor the individuals
choice unless it can demonstrate that another effective method of
- Police officers should generally not rely on family
members, who are frequently emotionally involved, to provide sign
Example: A deaf mother calls police to report a crime in which
her hearing child was abused by the child's father. Because it is not in
the best interests of the mother or the child for the child to hear all
of the details of a very sensitive, emotional situation, the mother
specifically requests that the police officers procure a qualified sign
language interpreter to facilitate taking the report. Officers ignore
her request and do not secure the services of an interpreter. They
instead communicate with the hearing child, who then signs to the
mother. The police department in this example has violated the ADA
because it ignored the mothers request an inappropriately relied on a
family member to interpret.
- In some limited circumstances a family member may be
relied upon to interpret.
Example: A family member may interpret in an emergency, when
the safety or welfare of the public or the person with the disability is
of paramount importance. For example, emergency personnel responding to
a car accident may need to rely on a family member to interpret in order
to evaluate the physical condition of an individual who is deaf.
Likewise, it may be appropriate to rely on a family member to interpret
when a deaf individual has been robbed and an officer in hot pursuit
needs information about the suspect.
Example: A family member may interpret for the sake of
convenience in circumstances where an interpreter is not required
by the ADA, such as in situations where exchanging written notes would
be effective. For example, it would be appropriate to rely on a
passenger who is a family member to interpret when an individual who is
deaf is asking an officer for traffic directions, or is stopped for a
11. Q: If the person uses sign language, what kinds
of communication will require an interpreter?
A: The length, importance, or complexity of the
communication will help determine whether an interpreter is necessary
for effective communication.
- In a simple encounter, such as checking a driver's
license or giving street directions, a notepad and pencil normally
will be sufficient.
- During interrogations and arrests, a sign language
interpreter will often be necessary to effectively communicate with an
individual who uses sign language.
- If the legality of a conversation will be questioned
in court, such as where Miranda warnings are issued, a sign
language interpreter may be necessary. Police officers should be
careful about miscommunication in the absence of a qualified
interpreter -- a nod of the head may be an attempt to appear
cooperative in the midst of misunderstanding, rather than consentor a
confession of wrongdoing.
- In general, if an individual who does not have a
hearing disability would be subject to police action without
interrogation, then an interpreter will not be required, unless one is
necessary to explain the action being taken.
Example: An officer clocks a car on the highway driving 15
miles above the speed limit. The driver, who is deaf, is pulled over and
issued a noncriminal citation. The individual is able to understand the
reasons for the citation, because the officer exchanges written notes
with the individual and points to information on the citation. In this
case, a sign language interpreter is not needed.
Example: An officer responds to an aggravated battery call and
upon arriving at the scene observes a bleeding victim and an individual
holding a weapon. Eyewitnesses observed the individual strike the
victim. The individual with the weapon is deaf, but the officer has
probable cause to make a felony arrest without an interrogation. In this
case, an interpreter is not necessary to carry out the
12. Q: Do I have to take a sign language interpreter
to a call about a violent crime in progress or a similar urgent situation
involving a person who is deaf?
A: No. An officer's immediate priority is to
stabilize the situation. If the person being arrested is deaf, the
officer can make an arrest and call for an interpreter to be available
later at the booking station.
13. Q: When a sign language interpreter is needed,
where do I find one?
A: Your department should have one or more
interpreters available on call. This is generally accomplished through a
contract with a sign language interpreter service. Communicating through
sign language will not be effective unless the interpreter is familiar
with the vocabulary and terminology of law enforcement, so your
department should ensure that the interpreters it uses are familiar with
law enforcement terms.
14. Q: Is there any legal limit to how much my
department must spend on communication aids like
A: Yes. Your department is not required to take any
step that would impose undue financial and administrative burdens. The
"undue burden" standard is a high one. For example, whether an action
would be an undue financial burden is determined by considering all of
the resources available to the department. If providing a particular
auxiliary aid or service would impose an undue burden, the department
must seek alternatives that ensure effective communication to the
maximum extent feasible.
15. Q: When would an officer use an assistive
listening device as a communication aid?
A: Assistive listening systems and devices receive and amplify
sound and are used for communicating in a group setting with individuals
who are hard of hearing.
- At headquarters or a precinct building, if two or more
officers are interrogating a witness who is hard of hearing, or in
meetings that include an individual who is hard of hearing, an
assistive listening device may be needed.
16. Q: What is a TDD and does every police station
have to have one?
A: A telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) is
a device used by individuals with hearing or speech disabilities to
communicate on the telephone. A TDD is a keyboard with a display for
receiving typed text that can be attached to a telephone. The TDD user
types a message that is received by another TDD at the other end of the
- Arrestees who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who have
speech disabilities, may require a TDD for making outgoing calls.
TDD's must be available to inmates with disabilities under the same
terms and conditions as telephone privileges are offered to all
inmates, and information indicating the availability of the TDD should
- TDDs typically cost $200-300 each and can be used with
a standard telephone. It is unlikely that the cost of purchasing a TDD
will be prohibitive. Still, a small department with limited resources
could arrange to share a TDD with a local courthouse or other entity,
so long as the TDD is immediately available as needed.
17. Q. What about "911" calls? How are those made
accessible to people with speech or hearing disabilities?
A: Individuals with hearing and speech disabilities
must have direct access to "911" or similar emergency telephone
services, meaning that emergency response centers must be equipped to
receive calls from TDD and computer modem users without relying on third
parties or state relay services. It is important that operators are
trained to use the TDD when the caller is silent, and not only when the
operator recognizes the tones of a TDD at the other end of the line. For
additional information, please refer to the Department of Justices
publication, Commonly Asked Questions Regarding Telephone Emergency
Services. For information about how to obtain this and other
publications, see the resources section at the end of this document.
18. Q: Procedures at my office require citizens to
fill out forms when reporting crimes. What if the person has a vision
disability, a learning disability, mental retardation or some other
disability that may prevent the person from filling out a
A: The simplest solution is to have an officer or
clerk assist the person in reading and filling out the form. Police
officers have probably been doing this for years. The form itself could
also be provided in an alternative format. Providing a copy of the form
in large print (which is usually as simple as using a copy machine or
computer to increase type size) will make the form accessible to many
individuals with moderate vision disabilities.
IV. Architectural Access
19. Q: Does the ADA require all police stations to be
accessible to people with disabilities?
A: No. Individuals with disabilities must have equal
access to law enforcement services, but the ADA is flexible in how to
achieve that goal. The ADA requires programs to be accessible to
individuals with disabilities, not necessarily each and every facility.
Often, structural alterations to an existing police station or sheriffs
office will be necessary to create effective access. In some situations,
however, it may be as effective to use alternative methods, such as
relocating a service to an accessible building, or providing an officer
who goes directly to the individual with the disability. Whatever
approach to achieving "program access" is taken, training of officers
and deputies, well-developed policies, and clear public notice of the
approach will be critical to ensuring successful ADA compliance.
Example: A police station in a small town is
inaccessible to individuals with mobility disabilities. The department
decides that it cannot alter all areas of the station because of
insufficient funds. It decides to alter the lobby and restrooms so that
the areas the public uses -- for filling out crime reports, obtaining
copies of investigative reports for insurance purposes, or seeking
referrals to shelter care -- are accessible. Arrangements are made to
conduct victim and witness interviews with individuals with disabilities
in a private conference room in the local library or other government
building, and to use a neighboring department's accessible lock-up for
detaining suspects with disabilities. These measures are consistent with
the ADA's program accessibility requirements.
Example: An individual who uses a wheelchair calls to report a
crime, and is told that the police station is inaccessible, but that the
police department has a policy whereby a police officer will meet
individuals with disabilities in the parking lot. The individual arrives
at the parking lot, waits there for three hours, becomes frustrated, and
leaves. By neglecting to adequately train officers about its policy, the
police department has failed in its obligation to provide equal access
to police services, and has lost valuable information necessary for
effective law enforcement.
20. Q: What about holding cells and jails that are
A: An arrestee with a mobility disability must have
access to the toilet facilities and other amenities provided at the
lock-up or jail. A law enforcement agency must make structural changes,
if necessary, or arrange to use a nearby accessible facility.
- Structural changes can be undertaken in a manner that
ensures officer safety and general security. For example, grab bars in
accessible restrooms can be secured so that they are not
- If meeting and/or interrogation rooms are provided,
those areas should also be accessible for use by arrestees, family
members, or legal counsel who have mobility disabilities.
21. Q: Is there a limit to the amount of money my
agency must spend to alter an existing police facility?
A: Yes. It is the same legal standard of "undue
burden" discussed earlier with regard to the provision of communication
aids. Your agency is not required to undertake alterations that would
impose undue financial and administrative burdens. If an alteration
would impose an "undue burden", the agency must chose an alternative
that ensures access to its programs and services.
22. Q. We are building a new prison. Do we need to
make it accessible?
A: Yes. All new buildings must be made fully
accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities. The ADA
provides architectural standards that specify what must be done to
- Either the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards
(UFAS) or the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (without the
elevator exemption) (ADA Standards) may be used. UFAS has specific
scoping requirements for prisons that require, among other things,
that 5% of all cells be made accessible to individuals with mobility
- Unlike modifications of existing facilities, there is
no undue burden limitation for new construction.
- In addition, if an agency alters an existing facility
for any reason -- including reasons unrelated to accessibility -- the
altered areas must be made accessible to individuals with
V. Modifications of Policies, Practices, and
23. Q: What types of modifications in law enforcement
policies, practices, and procedures does the ADA require?
A: The ADA requires law enforcement agencies to make
reasonable modifications in their policies, practices, and procedures
that are necessary to ensure accessibility for individuals with
disabilities, unless making such modifications would fundamentally alter
the program or service involved. There are many ways in which a police
or sheriffs department might need to modify its normal practices to
accommodate a person with a disability.
Example: A department modifies a rule that prisoners or
detainees are not permitted to have food in their cells excet at
scheduled intervals, in order to accommodate an individual with diabetes
who uses medication and needs access to carbohydrates or sugar to keep
blood sugar at an appropriate level.
Example: A department modifies its enforcement of a law
requiring a license to use motorized vehicles on the streets, in order
to accommodate individuals who use scooters or motorized wheelchairs.
Such individuals are pedestrians, but may need to use streets where curb
cuts are unavailable.
Example: A department modifies its regular practice of
handcuffing arrestees behind their backs, and instead handcuffs deaf
individuals in front in order for the person to sign or write notes.
Example: A department modifies its practice of confiscating
medications for the period of confinement, in order to permit inmates
who have disabilities that require self-medication, such as cardiac
conditions or epilepsy, to self-administer medications that do not have
Example: A department modifies the procedures for giving
Miranda warnings when arresting an individual who has mental
retardation. Law enforcement personnel use simple words and ask the
individual to repeat each phrase of the warnings in her or his own
words. The personnel also check for understanding, by asking the
individual such questions as what a lawyer is and how a lawyer might
help the individual, or asking the individual for an example of what a
right is. Using simple language or pictures and symbols, speaking slowly
and clearly, and asking concrete questions, are all ways to communicate
with individuals who have mental retardation.
- Informal practices may also need to be modified.
Sometimes, because of the demand for police services, third party
calls are treated less seriously. Police officers should keep in mind
that calling through a third party may be the only option for
individuals with certain types of disabilities.
24. Q: It sounds like awareness and training are
critical for effective interaction with individuals with disabilities. How
can I find out more about the needs of my local disability
A: State and local government entities were required,
by January 26, 1993, to conduct a "self-evaluation" reviewing their
current services, policies, and practices for compliance with the ADA.
Entities employing 50 or more persons were also to develop a "transition
plan" identifying structural changes that needed to be made. As part of
that process, the ADA encouraged entities to involve individuals with
disabilities from their local communities. Continuing this process will
promote access solutions that are reasonable and effective. Even though
the deadlines for the self-evaluation, transition plan, and completion
of structural changes have passed, compliance with the ADA is an ongoing
25. Q: Where can I turn for answers to other
questions about the ADA?
A: The Department of Justice's toll-free ADA
Information Line answers questions and offers free publications about
the ADA. The telephone numbers are: 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383
(TTY). Publications are also available from the ADA Website www.ada.gov.
Note: Reproduction of this document is encouraged.