New program aims to help first responders better serve Hoosiers with cognitive disabilities

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AVON, Ind. — The Avon Police Department’s new AWARE program strives to improve the service provided by first responders to those with cognitive disabilities and medical-related impairments.

AWARE offers a free, four-inch sticker decal to any person or family caring for someone with cognitive disabilities. That sticker can then be placed on registered vehicles and residences to serve as an indicator that first responders may likely interact with an individual who struggles to understand, comprehend, or engage with officers.

“We can train first responders on what autism is. We can train first responders on what mental health is,” said Deputy Chief Brian Nugent with the Avon Police Department. “But what tools do we have to empower our employees to know this is a particular situation where they need to employ those tactics?”

Nugent said the program was created by Avon police for all first responders. He said the decal program is meant to supplement first responders’ current de-escalation and mental health awareness trainings.

“We’re very proud of the fact that it’s a very simple program that will help empower us to make better decisions out in the field,” said Deputy Chief Nugent.

“I think this is a huge huge step here in Avon,” said longtime Avon resident, Arin Sparger. “We put it on the back window right on the same side of the vehicle where my daughter sits.”

Sparger is a mother of two and the primary caretaker for her eight-year-old daughter, Emma. Sparger said her daughter was born with Down syndrome, but it was not until the family got into a car accident that she realized how her daughter’s disability prevented her from seeking proper help.

“It became more obvious to me that Emma wasn’t able to effectively communicate what was going on or what her needs were at that particular time,” said Sparger. “Given her line of thinking – it was very overwhelming and I thought, ‘There has to be a way to make this a little bit easier’.”

Caretakers wishing to enroll in the program must complete a medical professional referral form. Once completed by a physician, the form can then be turned in to a participating law enforcement agency where officers will provide enough stickers for all registered vehicles and the primary residence.

“I feel like I’m able to keep her safer within her home and within our surrounding area,” Sparger said.

AWARE is currently limited to law enforcement agencies in Hendricks County. However, Deputy Chief Nugent said he hopes to someday expand the program throughout Central Indiana. To see a full list of which law enforcement agencies are currently listed as program participants, click here.

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