Sometimes it can feel intimidating to talk with a person who has an intellectual or developmental disability – reactions can be misread and tensions can escalate quickly due to a simple misunderstanding.

And for police officers, who are required to read situations quickly to ensure public safety, there is little room for misunderstandings.

That became clear last summer when police in Florida shot a man with autism who was sitting with a toy truck in the middle of the street. Authorities had received a 911 call about a man acting erratically. When police arrived on the scene, the man with autism did not respond to orders and tensions escalated, leading an officer to fire his gun.

That situation and others like it could have been prevented if police and people with disabilities had a better understanding of each other. That is why ADEC offered a free training for local law enforcement agencies on June 20 and June 21.

More than 30 officers from various agencies across Elkhart and St. Joseph counties attended.

“We are grateful that officers from our local police departments are willing to spend a day with ADEC to learn how to better communicate with the people we serve,” said Jessica Koscher, ADEC’s chief development officer. “Our ultimate goal is to create mutual understanding, improve safety for everyone involved and build positive relationships.”

Robin Ann Jones, a trainer from the Great Lakes ADA Center on Accessibility, spent the morning training officers on the Americans with Disabilities Act as it applies to emergency preparedness, natural disasters and first responder situations. Jones helped officers understand their role in ensuring people with disabilities are safe and appropriately cared for in the event of an emergency.

Representatives from ADEC spent the afternoon providing tips for effectively communicating and interacting with people with disabilities. Officers learned how to identify someone with a disability — a difficult task when many disabilities are invisible.

“It can be difficult to navigate a situation with a person on the autism spectrum, for example, because they might not appear to have a disability,” Koscher said. “It can be easy to misread their quirks or mannerisms as aggression or drug use.”

Three ADEC clients attended the training to talk with officers about their perceptions of law enforcement.

Earlier this month, hundreds of clients in ADEC’s five day service locations participated in a workshop about interacting with police officers. During that time, clients were asked about their previous encounters with law enforcement and how they responded.

“ADEC clients value respect,” said Whitney Craig, a communications specialist with ADEC who coordinated the workshops. “The number one thing we heard communicated during our client trainings was that they wanted to be noticed and shown respect. By starting an interaction off on this positive tone, ADEC clients are already primed to respond well. It lets them know you value them as a person, you are ready to listen and be patient and you are a friend.”

ADEC clients were also reminded about the importance of keeping their hands out of their pockets or bags and respecting a police officer’s personal space.

Because people with disabilities are more likely to be the victim of a crime, they are also more likely to have an encounter with a police officer.

“We hope that this training will make those interactions more positive because we have worked to build trust on both ends,” Koscher said.

The training was funded by a Coros grant through ADA-Indiana, an organization that promotes the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.