Autistic Future
July 2nd, 2016

How we Stop the Next Hannah Cohen Incident

TSA agents injured and ter­ri­fied a young woman with dis­abil­i­ties. How do we keep it from hap­pen­ing again?

Miles of mountains perfectly framed by dense, summer foliage and fluffy, low-hanging clouds

Late last night, part way through a long trip home to the Car­oli­na moun­tains by foot, train, car, bus, and plane, the image of a young wom­an’s bleed­ing face cropped up in my Face­book news feed. She had a run-in with air­port secu­ri­ty. Because she has cog­ni­tive and hear­ing impair­ments, among oth­er impair­ments, she was slow to respond to TSA agents’ ver­bal direc­tions. She got over­whelmed and pan­icked. It looks like the agents’ response was to throw her on the ground and drag her away in hand­cuffs. Her entire fam­i­ly missed their flights, and I can’t imag­ine the fear she must have felt as a vul­ner­a­ble per­son with mul­ti­ple dis­abil­i­ties in jail. A TSA rep­re­sen­ta­tive asked about the sit­u­a­tion advised peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and their loved ones to “call ahead” about the screen­ing process and their needs.

I have a hard time wrap­ping my mind around how any­one imag­ined that jail was the right response to a melt­down or pan­ic attack. Fear and dis­abil­i­ty aren’t crimes. She did no seri­ous dam­age to per­sons or prop­er­ty. Peo­ple who are too con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly frag­ile to han­dle some thrash­ing and scream­ing from dis­tressed indi­vid­u­als prob­a­bly don’t belong on the front lines of law enforce­ment and nation­al security.

I also don’t know that call­ing ahead would have pre­vent­ed this prob­lem, which has played out in dif­fer­ent ways for peo­ple with invis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ties in secu­ri­ty check­points and brush­es with police across Amer­i­ca. What might stop these vio­lent inci­dents is train­ing. How many unnec­es­sary, pre­ventable beat­ings and suf­fo­ca­tions, shoot­ings, pub­lic humil­i­a­tions and indig­ni­ties, unnec­es­sary sep­a­ra­tions of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties from their aides, unnec­es­sar­i­ly inva­sive search­es, and law­suits will it take to con­vince us to push for pol­i­cy change? We need train­ing on dis­abil­i­ty for law enforce­ment per­son­nel, every sin­gle armed offi­cer sworn to pro­tect the pub­lic and per­mit­ted to use force to do it, TSA and immi­gra­tion per­son­nel, every­one with a gun and hand­cuffs who comes into con­tact with the pub­lic. Some local police depart­ments are step­ping up and train­ing offi­cers of their own accord or in response to local advo­cates, but there are still peo­ple in law enforce­ment and relat­ed fields who can’t reli­ably dif­fer­en­ti­ate a pan­ic attack, melt­down, or psy­chot­ic episode from threat­en­ing and poten­tial­ly crim­i­nal behav­ior. Offi­cers some­times see threats even where dis­abled peo­ple are unarmed.

The sta­tus quo is a dan­ger­ous, some­times lethal, sit­u­a­tion for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and it will con­tin­ue until peo­ple in law enforce­ment and relat­ed fields know bet­ter. What hap­pened to Han­nah Cohen will con­tin­ue to endan­ger peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties who are trav­el­ing, or just coex­ist­ing with police offi­cers in pub­lic places, until we demand poli­cies that will make it stop.