Guest: David Whalen
Topic: Disability Awareness Training
Published: August 1, 2021
Host: Welcome to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS). Using this long format, we will be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and backgrounds.
We are delighted to have as our guest for today David Whalen, the founder of Disability Awareness Training. We are your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernie Churchwell. Welcome to the program, Dave.
Guest: Thanks for having me.
Host: 17 years ago, you begin Disability Awareness Training or DAT. We'll get into its details momentarily. But how would you summarize what your program can do for its participants?
Guest: Well, the intent is to educate and sensitize participants, so they best understand proper and appropriate response to people with disabilities, in whatever their role or interest or profession is. So we have developed this with the recognition that most people don't understand or properly respond to people with disabilities in a variety of settings, education, employment, first responders, emergency managers, hotels and hospitalities, entertainment venues and so on. So, while that's not appropriate, we understand that people need a place to turn to, to be educated and that's what our intentions are.
Host: So, you mentioned a few but generally what kinds of professions and organizations do you provide DAT for?
Guest: So, we have come together, I've actually brought my business if you will, to the Niagara University in 2010 when we got a grant through the Development Planning Council on first responders. That has led to us having a really the only comprehensive training in the country for first responders, and we'll break that down a little bit later in the program that has also led to us having a comprehensive programs specifically to emergency management. Those are both gone national. That said, I have had extensive trainings with teachers and educators. We’ve had some corporate relationships. Employment avenues specific to agencies that want to properly employ. We have had trainings and contracts with the NFTA and local transportation leaders to include school bus drivers. I find myself consulting with local aide entities, the Erie County Fair, KeyBank Center, Batavia Downs. Programs that provide options for people to recreate and have leisure but understand that there's the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and other ways that they may not be properly responding to people with disabilities. I truly I have about 50 trainings in my cadre all specific and customized for the audience. So, for instance within municipalities, we have a training just for recreation, even within law enforcement we have, we're looking to develop a training just for probation officers. So, the content needs to be customized and specific to the audience so that they're not walking away from the training saying, okay, I got everything I need. Well they don't know everything they need to know. And if we don't provide the full compliment of topics specific to their profession or the interest group that might not be a profession. We have training for places of worship. We can't in good faith and spirit and heart and truly in the best interest of people with disabilities, provide a training that lacks specific content.
Host: You mentioned working with Niagara University in one of your collaborations. You've had Disability Education & Awareness for Municipalities or DEAM, which helps government units to be more aware of what citizens with disabilities need for full inclusion. It had the distinction of being presented at the National Federal Emergency Management Agency’s or FEMA’s Get Real II Conference in Arlington, Virginia. What all do you cover in DEAM?
Guest: Well the intent there is that municipalities, by federal law, the ADA and more specific Title II for the most part, some other titles will come to play with municipalities certainly like Title I and telecommunications. But we find that most municipalities are not complying with the ADA. They have not established an ADA coordinator, where, by law, if you have 50 or more employees, you must have one. If they do have an ADA coordinator oftentimes that person is not educated in their roles or responsibilities, sometimes tagged by name only, so that they're covering their bases. Within the municipality we are looking for accessibility, proper response, Town Hall, City Hall, County Council meetings that are open to the public. Are they accessible? My comment a minute earlier about recreation departments, that's a municipality. Certainly, recreation departments under municipalities have responsibilities specific to their operations. Parks, hockey rinks, ball diamonds, all of the sports that they provide and other leisure activities.
I currently consult with the town of Hamburg which made great strides become accessible because they put forth the interest and effort to learn it, and to apply it. And I've been active with the town of Amherst since 2008. So, it's recognizing the need, and then providing that opportunity for those in this case municipalities to have a place to turn to be educated with the follow up to that being a check on them, making sure that they're moving forward in their ADA compliance across all aspects of municipal operations.
Host: So, another specialized type of DAT that has been imported for use all over the nation is law enforcement disability awareness training. This covers many different topics that officers should know when dealing with people with impairments, including the RIAIR Model for Recognition-Identification-Approach-Interaction-Response. What do you aim to achieve with this program?
Guest: Well, law enforcement's biggest challenge is with people with disabilities. And while we are certainly aware of their challenges in response to people of color, indigenous people, the LBGTQ community, we're not as aware of their lack of proper understanding and response to people with disabilities, their biggest challenge consistently it's their biggest challenge. But no one knows that. So, we are led by the media who will cover the, as they should, cover the issues that law enforcement has had and continues to have with, for instance, response to people who are Black or African American.
However, the issues they have with people with disabilities is extensive, and just as rampant, if not more. The challenge is this, disability is a broad word, it’s a singular word in a wide spectrum. So, within our content is the disabilities, most prevalent to law enforcement. And we also have the fire, EMS and 911, which all intertwine. But those programs are all customized for each audience. So back to specific to law enforcement.
For instance, their issues with response to people with Tourette syndrome are extensive. But when's the last time you heard about that? Other responses to people with acquired or traumatic brain injury is extremely extensive, but we're not hearing about this. What we're finding actually is that their response to any population, including the Black community, there is a study done by what was called the Harriet Tubman Collective that upwards of 60 to 80% of the issues that law enforcement has with people of color is those people of color, 60 to 80% have disabilities. So, when you break these numbers down, even within these demographics, outside the disabilities its still disabilities. It's just happens to be a person of color or have a Latinx background that they're challenged with, they just look at the demographic more in the light of skin color or ethnicity.
So, our concerns are vast, we provide the nation's only comprehensive training for law enforcement in this topic. We view it in line with and work closely with the mental health community because that is also an aspect of law enforcement challenge that's come to the head over the last a year and a half. We are actually going to the Crisis Intervention Training conference next month in Arizona, and we are looking to establish a more firm relationship with CIT. Their expertise is in training law enforcement in how to respond to people with mental health crises, it's a 40-hour training that is very well embraced throughout the law enforcement community in the country.
We continue to find them lacking understanding of the need to have our program, although I want to say that cautiously because we have many departments, especially locally here, that do understand that, for instance Amherst police department has trained all 159 officers in the entire curriculum. We have other departments that have recognized and begun to do some of that.
So, the law enforcement content again vast, important, and more than just training, its tools, its resources, our intention is that they're recognizing Independent Living Centers. Every time we train, we talk about Independent Living Centers being your first go to source and resource for the disability community. Being specific to local here, Deaf Access Services is partnered with us to train the Amherst police department.
So, our intentions are more than training, it's establishing those relationships and utilizing the local disability organizations and advocates to assist when, if and when they have challenges in response to specific disabilities.
Host: Speaking beyond the specifics, some would say that absolutely everyone could use disability sensitivity instruction, regardless of their line of work. A few decades ago, a good friend of mine who lost his sight in a freak accident while serving in the US Army was at the Edward Hines Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Center outside Chicago. He was practicing his mobility travel session at a nearby intersection when a stranger abruptly grabbed his white cane, dragged him across the street and left him with a You're welcome, Buddy. He had not necessarily wanted to go that way and was unsure where he wound up until he found someone to ask. Since then I've heard of others, with a not dissimilar experience. What should self-styled Good Samaritans do differently would you say?
Guest: That’s a great point, Ernie. Everyone needs disability awareness training, I’m glad you said that.
So, whether you're a neighbor. I've been referencing professions and organizations in need of disability awareness training. We all need it and quite frankly even us within the disability community need it. We're continuing to educate. Not a day that goes by where I'm not reading a journal article or a web link or an email from a specific disability organization that has some content that gives me new direction or points me down a different road to learn more about it. As I said earlier, disability is not a singular word it's vast, there's no such thing as a disability expert, doesn’t exist on the planet. It’s way too vast a topic.
So, you know, when we talk about situations like this one in where we have someone grabbing someone who's blind, not understanding proper escort, not understanding how to interact, ask the question if they need assistance, that's actually built into our program. Topics like that are built into our program. And that's where we find some of the individuals who do get that they have a need, and reach out to us, and where we, whereby we provide that education, proper language, people first language, identity first language, defining that, how to communicate with.
And that's really our program is so for instance to be specific to your topic on our website is a video which anyone can access anytime on how to properly escort a person who’s blind.
So, our intentions are to do some of the more I'll say basic things that we still need to learn. So, someone can just assume I'm going to take someone who's blind. I was in Toronto, a few years back and there was a person who was blind who was at a pizza shop and put an order in, and the person behind the counter when the order was done, they grabbed them by the forearm and walked them out to the door; inappropriate, it’s not how to escort someone and they weren't being forceful, it was just all they thought they knew but not okay. I use it as a teachable moment, hey here's how you would properly escort this person. So, I say this to all disability advocates out there and people who are irresponsive to the disability community, grab teachable moments, I do. Sometimes they’re confrontational like someone who parks in an accessible spot who shouldn’t but it's a teachable moment.
Host: So, we gather that you've covered the ADA and help participants to use etiquette and avoid misperceptions and stigma. Couldn't each of those be a lesson unto itself?
Guest: Absolutely Jillian, our intention within the program is to break those down. Etiquette interaction skills is both an intro in our content, and within each disability because etiquette interaction skills are specific to each disability.
The ADA in and of itself is a vast training that can be rather lengthy. Our intentions again are specific to those audiences so when I mentioned earlier that I have about 50 trainings in my cadre with intent is that, that audience is getting what they need, and then having the opportunity to reach out and receive more.
So, I think the worst thing anyone could do who trains is, get in there and do that three hours, full day training, whatever it is, and say goodbye to everyone. We offer ourselves up to questions they might have the next day, week, month, year, and we also point them to those individuals that will have those answers because again, I might not have the best answer.
I just got an email this morning from the Virgin Islands on their 911 operations asking about TTY and how it works. Well our 911 master trainer who ran the Erie County 911 Center, I CC’ed her, she can better tell how it works operationally in a 911 center, I'll follow up with the ADA and why we need to do it.
So yeah, we're always looking to expand specific to each topic area. And again, I think the example I just gave shows you how we can get very deep into the weeds on top but we need to have an answer for people specific to each area they're looking for, and that's one of our roles too. While we might not have it, I may be pointing them to someone at the IL, someone at DAS, National Federation for the Blind, Developmental Disability Service Providers, so on so forth.
Host: Your prior experiences in Disability Services have run the gamut. For instance, during your 17 years at Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara serving individuals with developmental disabilities, as Vice President of Program Operations you initiated several innovative programs that were ultimately adopted across the Empire State. Could you name some?
Guest: Yeah, so one of the things I realized in going in late 80s, in the early into the 90s was, as we all know the number one objective for people with disabilities is inclusion. And that's not just me talking and that's the National Council on Disabilities which identifies that, which advises the federal government that inclusion is your number one topic. Well that's a big word that we need to define that deeper. But what we found if you go back to the development of the service brighter days, 70s into the 80s was what day treatment centers were. Everyone with a developmental disability was in the same program, same building, were living with people with developmental disabilities, but they really weren't included in society. So, part of our intentions was to open that up.
And the Greenhouse at Opportunities Unlimited my intention there which I'm proud to say still is fully operational today, as a matter of fact has expanded and gotten bigger, was to have, bring the community to sites, since we weren’t going to be able to get 120 people out into the community on a daily basis. Open up a program where one its functional, its purposeful, its employed, its paid, its greenery so there's some therapy involved here and have it on site, inclusive program. Our nature trail was unfortunately was speared by spearheaded by the death of one of our employees in a car accident.
But what that allowed us to do was have an outdoor area for some people who might find them, having anxiety, be stressed, need to get out of the building where like that might be a lot of noise sometimes, experience nature right in our own backyard, which we were fortunate to have at the location that I was at. Senior programs was another one that we spend a lot of time on, senior initiatives because seniors with developmental disabilities have other need areas, potentially early onset dementia or dementia and of itself.
Occupational Therapy setups where settings where their homes and their residences are appropriate. So, we had also developing a senior program to address that. Really the intent is simple. Simply put, is that we want to be sure people with developmental disabilities were progressively involved in the community and embrace some of these models like inclusion, the ability to be outside, be outdoors, be active and have roles that address their needs, giving them something to look forward to that was functional and purposeful.
Host: David was some of your work, say with the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council in addition to working with first responders, you also have helped emergency managers. In what ways does your program assist them?
Guest: We were sole source funded by the New York State Development Disabilities Planning Council in 2016 to develop training for emergency managers and those with responsibilities in the profession, specific to planning preparedness, response, recovery, and customize for people with developmental disabilities and access and functional needs. Emergency management and response to people with disabilities is a huge topic and issue in this country based on lack of knowledge and proper response to cover the four areas I just mentioned. The number one death toll in pretty much every disaster is people with disabilities.
This was exposed by Hurricane Katrina which led to a post Katrina Act building, starting up the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination within FEMA. So, we have developed a program model that educates everyone invested in this topic. So, our program is not just for emergency management it is for people with disabilities, Department of Health, Red Cross.
This way, organizations, as a whole, no matter what or who you represent, and it's the intent is that everyone is sitting at the table, and ultimately we have people with disabilities, sitting in what they call a core advisory group, a concept developed by FEMA seven years ago that calls for people with disabilities and access and functional needs to be a part of that planning and preparedness process. It's a very comprehensive model that ends with a walking out with a working manual to address all areas, specific to this topic, and people with disabilities and access and functional needs in emergency planning preparedness, response, recovery. We're currently in New York, Missouri, Louisiana and about to be in Nebraska.
Host: During your 15 years on the Western New York Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day committee you were key in expanding DD Day, what did it ultimately become?
Guest: DD day, we were told at the time by the commissioner, and they, we still say we, I'm not active anymore but I still feel like I am, the DD Day mantra came from the, I should take a step back here. The Vulnerable Disabilities Day was identified by the Commissioner of OPWDD in the late 90s as the largest single day conference in the country specific to people with developmental disabilities. So, we certainly know what's in the state and I think we still use that tag nationally, because you end up getting about 1,200 people on one day attending the conference. The intent is to provide everything in one room in one day, that is relative to services and supports, programs, awards, presentations and speakers that can drive for a progressive agenda like inclusion. The training that I tend to do there annually is on inclusion, and how to properly achieve inclusion with people with development disabilities if there needs to be a method and a strategy, not always incorporated or embraced but we find our model to be the most effective and certainly when we get it out there to be properly responded to.
So, DD Day is actually it's a, it's a wonderful event for people listening this if you've never attended it. I would highly recommend it, whatever role you have been in disability services. It tends to be the end of May, with the pandemic has been a little juggling there but I'm assuming they're going to go back to the end of the May to provide that. I was proud to be active with that and share that for years and build it up to be a what became a massive event at the Buffalo Convention Center, now being held at Niagara Falls Convention Center.
Host: You brought your efforts to advance the treatment of consumers by initiating the Diocese of Buffalo's Disability Action Team and expanding these outreaches to other faiths. What did this achieve?
Guest: Well really I look at, and I have what I call the disability agenda, it's really it's you know it's 11 areas that I see one of them being DAT but to our talk earlier that everyone needs a topic. But really, what is the disability agenda, what are our intentions, who needs what we're talking about here. Well school, into transition, accessibility and accommodations, and understanding what that's about, employment, municipalities, which has a whole bunch of subsets as we've mentioned a couple minutes ago, transportation, healthcare, one of them being places of worship, I call it spiritualities on my agenda. So, places of worship or faith-based programs. Another place that needs to be understanding and accepting of people disabilities.
I remember, belonging to, or excuse me, going to my wife's Church of many years, a Catholic Church in Portville, New York a very small, rural church, the ones that you see in the movies where it's a small little church and in a country type setting there, with rows, they're about 20 deep. And within there you had my son who has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and young at the time, you had a woman with autism, young lady with autism, you had a gentleman with Tourette Syndrome who had copropraxia who had outbursts, you had a young man with Down syndrome. And of the 50 people in the church you had, literally, basically every developmental disability covered. We had four or five developmental disabilities in one room, and everyone's accepting. So, when the person with copropraxia who had verbal outbursts, had a verbal outburst, no one turned around, things moved forward. Mass continued.
We can't look at the, let me put it this way, let me scratch that. We have to look at every area of public use, of interest, of where we're going to go, hence my disability agenda and address those.
The Diocese of Buffalo, and at the time Sharon Abrainiac who really was the initiator of this and brought me in and together we were able to develop the Committee, led to the commissioning of parish advocates in the Catholic churches across Western New York. So, I became commissioned by the bishop to be my disability parish advocate under the respect life program. So, I have the Minister of disabilities at St. Peter &Paul Church in Williamsville. So, our intention is to have someone who's going to be within this structure of whatever organization in this case, churches, and places of worship. We're going to take this on, we're going to invest in this, and ensure that it happens, that we can't just go into a place to say you're not accessible or you don't have items in large print or you need to get an interpreter. We need to provide them with how to do that, which starts with disability awareness training, you have to educate them first before you want to plop on their table the tools and resources and some of the handouts of the accessibility Review Guide. So, same holds true with places of worship and wouldn't they or shouldn't they be accepting of all, Isn't that what the, when I tried by churches and I see everyone is welcomed my first question is, is everyone, welcome? Because if you're not accessible if you're not accommodating. If you find that someone who might make noises, based on their disability is annoying, well then, you're not welcoming everyone.
So, we are, and this goes right across the spectrum at one time I trained basically, all of the Jewish religious education, teachers, which included many rabbis. So, we find people that get it they just don't know where to turn to get it and again from a place of worship standpoint, if you're welcome everyone and that sign in front of your front of your place of worship says all are welcome, let's make sure they are.
Host: David, you’ve done such a thorough job of answering our questions. We didn't even cover about half of your important community involvements, but we need to wrap this up so how can you tell people who want to know more about disability awareness training to contact you?
Guest: They can reach me at Niagara University. My email is email@example.com. My office number is 716-286-7355.
Host: Thank you so much for informing our audience about your fine work.
Guest: Thanks for having.
Host: You've been listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the WNYIL family of agencies, courtesy of the NFRRS. Our guest was David Whalen, founder of DAT. This program features a song A Little Ditty on the Dance floor by Jay Lang available under Creative Commons Attribution noncommercial license. We've been your host Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. If you wish to hear this program again, a couple days after the on air broadcast, you can find a podcast on the NFRRS web page nfradioreading.org on the Programming Tab under Bonus Programs, and also on wnyil.org under Public Relations/Podcasts. Have a