Grassroots Movement Educating First Responders On Special Needs Interactions
VALPARAISO, Ind. — Emily Felter leaned into her father’s arms with a quick kiss and tight hug.
Tom Felter Jr. reciprocated with a hug and kiss for his 24-year-old daughter who has Down syndrome. They stood in front of about two dozen guests at Casa Del Roma banquet center in Valparaiso.
“Are you going to help people sign in?” Felter asked Emily.
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“No,” she replied sharply.
“OK,” he said with a chuckle.
Welcome to The Emily Talk, where Tom does most of the talking and Emily gets most of the laughs. For several years, they’ve offered an insightful presentation to help people interact with individuals who have special needs.
“Hi, I’m Tom,” Felter told the Porter County RN Club, a group of registered nurses. “And this is Emily.”
“Hi,” Emily said shyly.
“If you get nothing out of this talk, just remember one thing — to be patient,” he said. “Emily is like a slow computer. You have to give these people time to absorb what you’re saying.”
A train’s horn blared in the background. Emily, who has the mind of a young girl, clutched her father even tighter.
“Barking dogs and crying babies are her Kryptonite,” Felter said.
He uses a PowerPoint presentation with easy-to-understand bullet-point takeaways, based on recommendations from the Americans with Disabilities Act. For instance, don’t trip over yourself to be overly polite. Be direct while still respecting someone’s personal space. Speak slowly if warranted. Allow extra time for a response.
“Don’t overwhelm them,” Felter said. “Also, don’t grab their arm. Let them take your arm.”
Don’t yell or raise your voice, which contorts your face, he said.
“Use a calm voice, even if you’re angry,” Felter said. “It doesn’t always matter what you say, but how you say it. Get their attention and keep their attention. Stay face to face.”
Felter, an ambulance paramedic with Porter Regional Hospital, originally geared The Emily Talk toward first responders, but has expanded to include just about anybody who works with the public. The goal is to teach how to avoid an awkward situation in casual conversation, but also to avert a potentially dangerous scenario for people with special needs.
“Do you want to sit by mom now?” Felter asked his daughter.
“No,” Emily replied.
“OK,” he said.
Emily’s participation in their presentation is day by day, sometimes minute by minute.
“We’re always on Emily time,” said Felter, who lives in Hebron. “Some days, we don’t even get inside the building.”
Their program was spurred by the tragic outcome of a 2013 incident at a Maryland movie theater involving a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome. Ethan Saylor had just watched a film he enjoyed so much that he immediately returned to watch it again, without buying a ticket, while his aide left the building to get the car.
After Saylor didn’t leave the theater on request, three off-duty sheriff’s deputies forcibly removed him from the building and at some point, he wound up on the ground, face down. Saylor suffered a fractured larynx, and his death was later ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.
Last year, Saylor’s family reached a $1.9 million settlement with the state of Maryland. His death sparked public outcry and, advocates hope, a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity by law enforcement for individuals with special needs. The Emily Talk always begins with a five-minute video featuring this case.
“There are now grassroots presentations like ours all over the United States to talk about not letting this tragic situation ever happen again,” Felter told the group.
Emily eventually sat next to her mother, Tina Felter, who gently embraced her and rubbed her back.
Emily was born with multiple health problems. Her parents said they learned that Down syndrome is her gift, not her disability. It doesn’t define her. It only begins to describe her.
“She’s my claim to fame,” Felter said.
Felter joked that even he and his wife don’t know what Emily will do or say during any social situation. Her mother once joked, “We’re working on her social skills.”
Most of us need to work on our social skills when interacting with people who have special needs, whether they’re visually noticeable, as in Emily’s case, or not so initially obvious, Tom Felter told the RNs.
“You have to try to understand their viewpoint,” he said.
Felter and his daughter have shared their presentation with firefighters, EMS providers, NIPSCO gas meter workers, and most recently with first- and second-year residents at IU Health Arnett Hospital in Lafayette.
At the program for the RNs, Emily interrupted her father a few times to unknowingly punctuate his points about interacting with anyone with special needs. She stated her feelings without much forethought about context of the situation.
“I love you!” she told him.
“I love you more,” he replied.
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