The Intersection of Driving, Disability, and Being Black. Image of police lights flashing

The Intersection of Driving, Disability, and Being Black

Michael Saunders
Director of Money Follows the Person
Independence Now

Traffic stops are already dangerous and have proven deadly for black drivers, and when you add disability, your risk increases. My fear of a traffic stop is one that I have all the time. Not long ago, it came true on the DC Capital Beltway. I was driving down the beltway when I looked in my rearview mirror to see a state trooper following me. I knew at that point he would pull me over. When he did, my heart was beating because I immediately thought about our location and what he would do when I told him my wallet was in my wheelchair backpack. At first, he didn’t get out of the car, and he was talking through his car speaker. I couldn’t tell him I was in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t do what he asked, which was to get out of the car. I wasn’t speeding too much that required me to get out, so I didn’t understand why that was being requested.  

After a while, he came to my vehicle frustrated as to me not moving; his hand was on his hip. As I grew more scared, he told me that I was not listening. I tried to tell him I was a paraplegic. But he just continued to be frustrated and ask me questions that had nothing to do with me being pulled over. As I explained that my wallet was in my bag on my chair in the back seat, I felt more scared because now I had to reach for it. As I reached for my bag, I tried to explain every detail that I was doing because he never took his hand off his hip. I was then talked to in a tone with words that should not be used by an officer. I was treated as if I’d done something way worse than going 14 miles per hour over the speed limit. I think it was more likely the type of car I was driving while black and paraplegic. 

In the event of a traffic stop, drivers with disabilities who have mobility challenges may not be able to exit their vehicle in the manner anticipated by police. When an officer gives commands from their vehicle, and you cannot do anything they are telling you to do because of your physical disability, and there is no way to communicate that to the police, I fear something bad will happen to me or others. What is an inability to complete a command may be mistaken as an act of aggression or defiance by officers. Given the very real dangers people with disabilities already face in police interactions, clear communication between civilians and officers is required to avoid unnecessary escalation or worse. This concern is compounded when the driver is also a person of color because of biases that exist. 

I work for Independence Now, a Maryland Center for Independent Living, and we’ve put some time into talking about this issue, brainstorming ideas that could reduce the chance of a negative interaction with police.   The main question we discussed was, how can it be communicated to police during a traffic stop that the driver cannot exit their vehicle in a manner anticipated by police? A suggestion was made to have a sticker on your vehicle indicating that you can’t exit, but people were concerned this would make them targets in other situations. This is similar to the reason some people choose not to have accessible tags on their vehicle because of the attention it draws, possibly making the person vulnerable.   

One idea seemed the most acceptable, having the option for a driver to have a permanent and clear notation in their information that is pulled during a stop that will alert an officer that this person cannot exit the vehicle in the traditional manner. This note would be one step in improving the safety of traffic stops for drivers with disabilities. When meeting with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and the State Police, we were told that that if an officer goes several pages into the driver’s information, they would see that a driver had been through the Medical Review Board, which is required when using any adaptive driving equipment and might indicate that someone would not exit the vehicle traditionally. While this feels like a stretch for us that an officer is absolutely going to take the time to view several pages on their computer before communicating with the driver, it is what we have at this time. We continue to discuss and look for better solutions.

Michael Saunders is the Director for Money Follows the Person at Independence Now. Michael suffered an injury to his spine in December 1992 which left him paralyzed and a wheelchair user.  From the time that he sustained his injury, he feels he’s been blessed with strength to push on no matter the circumstances. It led him to join support groups throughout the area as well as mentoring others in similar situations. The mentoring stretches to various areas of his life. He had the pleasure of working with residents at Melwood for about a year before being given a great opportunity to join Independence Now and become a peer support counselor in the Money Follows the Person program.  He has worked with Money Follows the Person for 6 years now. He started as a peer counselor and then had the opportunity to become the Supervisor for the project and has served in that position for the last 3 years. Where he feels he gets the honor to not only serve the disability community as an advocate but also continues to work and mentor as a supervisor.  Michael has begun advocating at a greater level, visiting Capitol Hill and testifying in Annapolis. He also recently purchased his first home.  

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