COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ABOUT THE 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 duties?
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 centers;
- 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 drugs?
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 wheelchair?
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 impaired?
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
- 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 communication exists.
- Police officers should generally not rely
on family members, who are frequently emotionally involved, to provide
sign language interpreting.
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 traffic violation.
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 arrest.
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
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
14. Q: Is there any legal limit to how much my department must spend on communication aids like interpreters?
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 form?
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 not accessible?
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 create access.
- 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 disabilities.
V. Modifications of Policies, Practices, and Procedures
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 abuse potential.
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
- 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
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.