PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Newly introduced legislation is causing some Rhode Islanders with autism spectrum disorder to sound the alarm, arguing that it will increase discrimination and stigma.
The R.I. House Committee on Health and Human Services heard testimony on the legislation Tuesday evening. The bill, introduced by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, would allow the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to mark the driver’s licenses and plates of autistic Rhode Islanders.
The legislation would also allow for an autism decal to be placed on their vehicle, and a blue envelope inside their car that includes ways to enhance communication between an autistic person and law enforcement.
The markings would be completely voluntary, according to Azzinaro.
Azzinaro said the idea for the bill came from Westerly High School student, who reached out to him. It aims to improve communication between drivers with autism and officers.
“I can imagine someone with autism that gets stopped for maybe rolling through a stop sign, maybe going a little too fast, whatever the case may be,” Azzinaro explained. “When they get pulled over by an officer, they get very nervous.”
The high schooler who started the conversation addressed lawmakers Tuesday through a device that helps him better communicate.
“I learned from my research that sometimes people, like the police, may not understand the autism community and reactions we may have when surrounded by lights and sirens,” Tobi Silva explained. “I want to make a change in the community that will help keep police and drivers with autism safe.”
Connecticut passed similar legislation, and has been offering “The Blue Envelope” for a few years. But Connecticut’s version of the bill doesn’t include markings on driver’s licenses or plates.
Silva said he met with police in Connecticut as part of his research, and also spoke to officers in Westerly.
Westerly Police Chief Paul Gingerella supports the bill, according to Azzinaro.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) is pushing back.
“We think it should be the goal that police approach every interaction with the same amount of compassion and dignity, regardless of whether an individual has chosen to visually alert law enforcement that they are an individual with a specific disability,” ACLU of RI Policy Associate Hannah Stern said.
Several autistic Rhode Islanders testified against the legislation and warned lawmakers that it could be dangerous.
“Such a bill would offer up an opportunity for officers to harass us, infantilize us and treat us as if we are less than any other driver on Rhode Island roads,” Shea explained.
The majority of those who testified claimed they didn’t learn of the bill until Monday, and wished they had been part of the conversation before it was introduced.
“I think that we need to pull the community into these conversations instead of having lawmakers who are not autistic, are not disabled, make these decisions for us,” Casey Gallagher, co-founder of Luna Community Care said.
Azzinaro said he’s aware that the bill needs work, and understands why some people are against it. He said he’s working on improving it.
The bill has been held for further study.
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