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The Glee Effect:
Sensitizing Emergency Responders to the “R” Word

Rutgers Web Course Promotes Understanding of Developmental Disabilities


By Margaret McHugh

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Retired Paterson Police Officer Larry Rudesyle recalls when words like 'crazy' and 'retarded' were used in dispatches to refer to a person behaving erratically.

First responders on the scene might shout at the person to stay still and physically subdue him if he didn't – only to find out later that the behavior was a manifestation of a developmental disability.

“First responders need to understand the unique characteristics of this population. This training is dead-on.”

-William Testa, Executive Director of The ARC of Morris County

Recently, television shows like Glee have crusaded to banish stereotypes that surround the developmentally disabled. Similarly, the New Jersey Legislature made a big push to improve first responders' understanding about developmental disabilities and better handle encounters by passing a law in 2008 mandating training. The result was an online course for the state's more than 100,000 police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel.

Rutgers University Office of Continuing Professional Education created the hour-long interactive online course, which gives all first responders a baseline understanding about developmental disabilities and best practices for interactions, said Program Coordinator Emily Carey PerezdeAlejo.

Autism awareness sticker

The Developmental Disabilities Awareness Training for NJ First Responders "helps you to be mindful of how to approach a person with erratic behavior," said Rudesyle, who also is a volunteer firefighter in Haledon and an EMT in North Haledon. "You have to step back and assess the situation. Are they on medication? Do they have autism? Are they having a seizure? Have they suffered a traumatic brain injury?"

Using photos and video clips of real-world scenarios, the course introduces first responders to the challenges of interacting with someone with developmental disabilities and recommends approaches for a successful encounter. It explains, for example, that a person with a developmental disability may respond to questions and instructions without understanding them and take everything said literally. First responders are encouraged to use simple, direct language and avoid jargon and expressions that can have more than one meaning.

"People don't realize how many individuals they encounter every day who have disabilities," said Kathleen Lutz, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) Office of Emergency Medical Services who coordinated development of the curriculum. More than 200,000 New Jerseyans have a developmental disability, and many have multiple diagnoses, Lutz said.

Developmental disabilities are severe chronic conditions that result from mental and/or physical impairments and develop anytime up to age 22. People with developmental disabilities may have problems with life skills including language, mobility, learning, and living independently.

"Individuals with developmental disabilities are increasingly integrating into communities and having more contact with the same services you and I use," said William Testa, executive director of The ARC of Morris County. "First responders need to understand the unique characteristics of this population. This training is dead-on."

The Rutgers course was so well received that it has been adapted for use in Colorado to promote better training among that state's first responders.

The course "is a lasting resource" that can continue to meet New Jersey's mandated training requirement for professionals entering emergency response fields, Carey PerezdeAlejo said. "It provides a basic education that professionals can then build upon."

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The NJDHSS and the Departments of Community Affairs and Law & Public Safety collaborated with the Department of Human Services, the New Jersey State First Aid Council, the New Jersey Fire and Emergency Medical Services Institute and other stakeholders to develop the curriculum. The Rutgers Office of Continuing Professional Education created the online training program through a contract with the NJDHSS.

For more information on this program, please contact Emily Carey PerezdeAlejo at 848-932-7184.