I’m seeing a lot of concern among autistics over a proposed Virginia bill that would allow individuals to add an indication that they are autistic onto their driver’s license and ID card (among other things, like designating an emergency contact – not printed on your license – so that if police find your dead body, they know you want your wife to know). I recognize not everyone has a license, but I’m going to use that term throughout below, so if you have an ID card, just know I know you exist too and the below applies to you too.
There’s some concerns that I’ve seen. Some are legit. Most, however, are fear of not what the law does, but what the law could do should something else happen. A lot of these fears are similar to fears about Obama Care (“Death Panels! Rationing!”) – not things that the law actually does, but things people fear could happen. It’s important to be skeptical of claims that the government will harm, just as it’s important to be skeptical of claims the government will help! We need to be careful what conclusions we jump to, and ensure they are based in fact.
So, what does the bill do? That’s simple. In addition to allowing the person (not their parent, not their spouse, not their doctor) to designate an emergency contact voluntarily in the computer records law enforcement can access (this is similar to laws in most other states, and, again, you don’t have to list anyone), you can voluntarily indicate you are autistic and provide proof. You don’t have to volunteer. You can, but you don’t have to.
Here’s the section:
When requested by the applicant, and upon presentation of a signed statement by a licensed physician confirming the applicant’s condition, the Department shall indicate on the applicant’s driver’s license that the applicant (i) is an insulin-dependent diabetic, or (ii) is hearing or speech impaired, or (iii) has an intellectual disability, as defined in § 37.2-100, or autism spectrum disorder, as defined in § 38.2-3418.17.
The new section is iii. The part about being an insulin-dependent diabetic (probably added in response to police questioning the presence of syringes) or hearing/speech impaired (to explain why the person didn’t respond to police), they are allowing someone to designate themselves as autistic with a doctor’s note (required in a different section) saying they are. Again, you don’t have to say this. If you don’t want it on your license, should you live in VA, and should this law pass, simply don’t ask for it! It won’t show up if you don’t request it to.
Here’s what I’ve seen people say about this law (paraphrased):
- No autistic adults were consulted about this
- It’s going to limit employment opportunities for autistics
- It’s establishing a registry of autistic people, presumably for evil purposes (think Nazi Germany)
- Police won’t know what to do with a license that says “autistic” and may either discriminate or simply do whatever this was intended to prevent police from doing since they don’t understand autism
- Take the control of who you disclose to out of your own control
Let me address these.
First, I agree about the first item – if no autistic adults were consulted, this is a bad thing. We should be consulted! There’s plenty of easy-to-find autistic adult groups. Now, I don’t know if autistic adults were consulted or not, but we should have been if we weren’t.
For employment, I don’t think this law will have significant effect. First, most employers don’t require a driver’s license for interviews or applications. I’ve probably applied for 100+ jobs in my life and interviewed at 20 or 30, including delivery jobs. I’ve never been asked for a driver’s license to do so. I have been asked for a driver’s license number, but not the license. I believe this is to show I have a license, although I question why they ask for the number – it’s not useful without additional permission from me to access the drivers’ license history database. But, regardless, the number won’t disclose I’m autistic should I indicate such on the license. I think this is a relatively small issue – sure, if you use the ID after employment to validate your identity (note you can use other forms of ID), then they may know, so, yes, you should consider that when you ask for your license to indicate you are autistic. But the risk is relatively low (yes, it needs to be evaluated, and, again, if you don’t want the risk, don’t put it on your license!).
I’ll also add that, for some people, disclosure of being autistic may help them get a job. I’ll get to this in a minute, but being seen as autistic, by an employer that believes in diversity, is a lot better than being seen as, say, high on drugs. Not everyone has the privilege of passing as a “typical” person, and the wrong label may hurt even more than the right one.
And, finally, for someone who needs employment or other accommodations, having a state-issued document that says, “YES, this person is autistic!” could be very useful – it makes it a lot harder legally for someone to say, “Well, I didn’t have documentation that they were disabled” if it was shown to them. I can see this helping in all sorts of things, from employment accommodations to being questioned about a service animal (which is illegal – the questioning that is – in most cases, but which happens nonetheless and different people may want to have different responses, such as showing documentation rather than arguing or leaving).
As for establishing a registry, again, each person needs to consider that. If you answer the questions about mental conditions on the application for a driver’s license and indicate you are autistic, then, yes, the state knows. That’s independent of whether or not you also request the driver’s license say you are autistic. If you don’t answer that question with information that you are autistic (and I don’t – I don’t believe it has any impact on my ability to drive, which is why they ask; they want to know what impacts my ability to drive, which, for me, is things like my eyesight). Very likely, if you are on medicaid, the State also has your information. So does your school district if you were on an IEP. So does Social Security if you get SSI/SSDI. So does Medicare if you get that. So, while we should be concerned about data collection by government, and the uses of this collection, we should also be realistic that for many autistics, this information is already in their hands, and disclosing on the driver’s license doesn’t do any additional harm – you’re not telling the state something they don’t already know. That said, again, it should be up to the individual. Again, it is.
I’ll get to the police issue in a minute. But I want to address the last bullet point first – that this limits control of information. We do show licenses or ID cards frequently in this society, and, obviously, anyone who sees a license that says you are autistic may see that and now know you are autistic. This is a valid concern and needs to be weighed against any possible benefits from having them know. If you feel the benefits don’t outweigh the problems, don’t have them add it on your license!
Okay, on police, which I suspect is the main reason someone is proposing this. I agree that police need better training – they have no idea how to deal with autism, mental illness, or any number of other things (heck, they don’t generally know how to de-escalate situations). And we do need that training. This bill doesn’t prohibit training. Rather than opposing a bill that says nothing about training, it’s probably better to focus on a bill that would create better training. That’s more likely to actually accomplish the training! Stopping this bill won’t suddenly cause police to be trained.
But here’s the reason why I would support this bill: some people don’t have the privilege of being considered “normal” if autism isn’t disclosed. Too often, these people are assumed to be rude, aggressive, drunk, high on drugs, dangerous, or combative when they are not any of these things. While an officer, employer, or other person might not know what “autism” means regarding these things, at least some – who don’t understand the term autism – will still respond by giving the person the benefit of the doubt, precisely because they know they don’t know (at the risk of sounding Rumsfeldian – see the video below – although I’ll add that Rumsfeld was logically correct, and, sadly, most people were not logically sophisticated enough to get his point).
Even better, this is validated. Maybe it’s not validated well (people can and do forge doctor’s notes, and we can also debate whether or not doctors should be gatekeepers on an autistic label). Maybe doctors shouldn’t do the validation. But doctors are trusted, as is the state DMV, at least by most police. Maybe this is unwise, but it’s the current state of the world. So, when this is on a driver’s license, it’s going to be assumed correct. If I hand the person an autism card, tell the person I’m autistic, or don’t communicate my label at all, the other person may either not believe me (“You are trying to use this as a get-out-of-jail-free card”) or may attribute my motive to something else (“You’re drunk” or “You’re an ass”).
Here’s the example. Let’s say I’m sitting on a bench on a city pedestrian mall, and the local PD comes up to me to find out if I’m (1) in need of assistance and (2) drunk. If I’m in need of assistance, they’ll likely get it for me, but the real point is probably #2 – they want to know if I’m drunk, and, if so, remove me from view of tourists “for my own good.” This has happened to me several times. Now, if I can talk, I can simply say, “I’m fine” and maybe be believed. But something led them to believe I was drunk – they don’t question everyone sitting on that mall! So maybe they believe me, maybe they don’t, particularly if I have a speech issue. I could hand them an autism card (which might not be a bad idea). And maybe they’ll believe it, which would be awesome. Or I could hand them my driver’s license that indicates I’m autistic. Maybe they won’t know what to do with it, maybe they’ll still haul me off to the drunk tank (I’m trying to think of a worse place for an autistic to end up), but maybe, just maybe, they’ll say, “OH! This person might not be drunk.”
Now, is there downsides to having your license say you are autistic? Of course. That’s why it’s important that it be an individual choice. But you don’t create choice by taking away a choice (preventing me from putting my label on my license won’t respect my self-determination!).
I don’t oppose it. I would tell people to think about it carefully. And if unsure, you can decide NOT to request it be added to your license (shouldn’t take any actual work by you – they only put it on there if you ask for it). You should also be able to get it removed, much like you could decide you want to remove the organ donor status on your license, should you change your mind.
This is not the big evil in the world of autism right now. Now, if you want to talk police training, I’m all for that, and I think we should get moving on that.