On a sunny day in August, on a typical tree lined suburban street in Queens, NY, a knock opens a neighbor’s door. “Are you coming?” asked a client of Unique People Services (UPS). UPS was holding an open house to introduce the community to their newest neighbors: six women with varying degrees of developmental and intellectual disabilities. Before the event, UPS reached out the neighbors with invitations. They invited community residents, elected officials, and the local police community relations officer. The purpose of the event was to encourage neighbor and community engagement for the purpose of inclusion and the safety of both the UPS residents and their neighbors.
Founded in 1991 and headed by Executive Director Yvette B. Andre, Unique People Services, Inc. (UPS) is a New York-based nonprofit 501(c)3 that provides supportive housing and medical case management services to individuals and families living with mental health challenges, developmental disabilities and HIV/AIDS. Their mission is to serve—holistically and without judgment—those who may have been denied compassionate and considerate treatment elsewhere due to their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, developmental level, health status, criminal or substance abuse history.
As a society, we are aware of the myriad of support for children on the autism spectrum, but the same degree of support doesn’t always exist for the adults on the spectrum. This population of incredibly talented and kind-hearted adults are sometimes faced with the challenge of feeling safe and included in their new communities. To help these individuals, Unique People Services is committed to creating opportunities, which introduce individuals to their neighbors.
“The foundation of our approach is to fill in the gaps of understanding when it comes to individuals with disabilities. We understand that there is a social stigma that surrounds the population. These opinions only harbor misunderstandings that further underlines a view of them as different and potentially dangerous. As a result, misconceptions and stereotypes arise. But once you interact and become familiar with them, only then do the fears begin to disappear,” stated Sherri Lindo, Program Director of the residence where the open house was held. UPS periodically has the individuals make cards introducing themselves to local businesses and community centers of influence. Inclusion is possible, but it does come with its challenges, especially when it comes to misunderstanding from the overall community and law enforcement.
Sadly, and all too often, we hear in the news of heartbreaking events that have occurred because of the lack of proper community introductions. Interacting with law enforcement, because of a lack of communication and understanding, has at times tragically resulted in death.
The Ruderman Family Foundation released a white paper on media coverage of law enforcement use of force and disability. The white paper stated that individuals with disabilities comprise one-third to one-half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. In the same publication, they cited a report published by The Guardian titled “The Counted,” which includes a database of people killed by police totaling 1,101 as of December 21, 2015. The Washington Post has also compiled a similar database of individuals shot (focusing on firearms as opposed to all fatalities) – 944 in the same period. “The Counted” tracks 27% of all individuals killed by police in 2015 as having “mental health” issues, or 270 people. The Washington Post currently reports 235 individuals with “signs of mental illness” shot by police. To put these numbers in context, according to 2014 figures from the National Institute on Mental Health, the best available estimate of the number of adults with any diagnosable mental disorder during that year was nearly 1 in 5 Americans, roughly 19% totaling an estimated 43 million people. These facts reflect a tragic reality, yet UPS understands that interactions with law enforcement can be and must be done better.
UPS makes it a priority to work with community stakeholders to strengthen and build communities of support. “At UPS, we have a proactive approach that aids in the prevention of such irreversible tragedies,” said Yvette B. Andre. “Unique People Services believes that inclusion and understanding are vital to a flourishing community,” she further stated. Their approach helps them to include individuals in the mainstream of society. They provide guidance and resources to community residents, build relationships with local law enforcement and consistently engage public officials; a simple approach that works. They realize that relationships are key.
At their most recent open house, the police community relations officer attended, and she brought along some community summer youth to introduce them to the residents. In a conversation with the officer, she stated, “Law enforcement is there for the protection of all and participating in these types of events are important.” When asked why she felt it was important to bring youth from the community, she replied, “Once you know someone and build a relationship with that person, it changes your perspective. That is how we all stay safe.”
Evidence supports that people with autism and disabilities face severe marginalization, victimization, and crime.
Autism Now reports that “Although more research is needed, studies consistently show people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to experience violence than people without disabilities.” In the latest data released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “persons age 12 or older who had disabilities experienced 1.3 million nonfatal violent crimes and for each racial group measured, persons with disabilities had higher age-adjusted violent victimization rates than persons without disabilities.”
“We are founded on the principle that everyone deserves the right to be understood and accepted. We know that something as simple as an open house or community introductions create a safe environment for our individuals and their neighbors. These types of actions work to benefit all involved. Individuals have the right to inclusive living situations in their communities. The only way for that to occur is to create opportunities for a collective community experience,” stated Yvette Andre.
UPS has learned that by promoting integrating experiences between its residents and the overall community; it generates a positive ripple effect in the neighborhoods they serve, which continues to strengthen overtime. Working with community residents and law enforcement, acceptance occurs, friendships build, and the support circle widens.
Being a part of a community and feeling included and safe is extremely important to those individuals with intellectual disabilities and on the autism spectrum. While community integration takes time and effort, with a sound approach, a knock on the door by a magnificent individual with special needs, the results are truly gratifying, life changing and empowering for all involved.
Donna Davis is President & CEO, The DG Group. To learn more about Unique People Services visit their website at www.uniquepeopleservices.org.
Autism Now https://autismnow.org/in-the-community/safety/
Erika Harrell, Ph.D., Bureau of Justice Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2012 – Statistical Tables Statistics, February 25, 2012 http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4884
David M. Perry, PhD, Lawrence Carter-Long, The Ruderman White Paper in Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability: a Media Study (2013-2015) and Overview March 2016 http://rudermanfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/MediaStudy-PoliceDisability_final-final.pdf