Reginald “Neli” Latson. He was 18 and was waiting for the Stafford, Virginia public library to open. It was 2010. A person called the police and reported a suspicious person, possibly with a gun. And, yes, he is black.
Every parent’s worst fears blew up in this story. Neli is on the autism spectrum. We do not like to be touched. We are extremely sensitive to sounds. So, when the police touched and yelled, Neli did what human beings do. He defended himself – fight or flight instinct.
Neli was arrested and charged with assaulting the police officer. It did not matter that he has a disability. His mom’s pleas were ignored. Neli was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Ten years. And it gets worse. His mom, Lisa Alexander, shares how he was put into solitary confinement for extended periods. Her son was tasered and once, strapped in a restraint chair for over nine hours.
Lisa succeeded in getting Gov. Terry McAuliffe to grant a conditional pardon five years later. Yes, five years later. He was allowed to leave prison and live in a group home. Gov. Ralph Northam in 2021 granted another pardon that allowed Neli to choose where and how he wanted to live. Neli continues to hope for an unconditional pardon so that the felony convictions are expunged from his record.
Recently, he was welcomed to the White House Black History Month event to speak of his hijacked life. The attorneys who refused to give up advocating for those who do not get fairly represented in our systems were there. So, was his mom.
Today, one in 54 people is on the spectrum. On Guam, the count is near 300. However, I would put money on that number being much higher. As early intervention and special education programs are available to help our families, there is always room for improvement and strengthened support.
Transitioning out of high school is terrifying. Much more needs to be done to help employers understand our world. Investment in employment for those with disabilities needs to be sincere.
We have laws that say 2 percent of our government agency budgets shall be allocated for the employment of those with severe disabilities. We need continued job coaching support services for those who want to continue working but no longer qualify for federal support. Local government needs to step up.
I shared the Neli Latson article with a couple of chat groups. Dr. Nieves Flores, top special education advocate in the region, recalled a think tank that Families First facilitated. Policy issues and program needs were brainstormed. One of the major takeaways was the need for training for all first responders in how to best work with those with disabilities.
Screaming at them only aggravates the situation. Our brains do not work like others. During that think tank, we shared how the Guam Fire Department is welcoming and supportive while the Guam Police Department is not. The officers in the room shared – honestly – that their missions differ. Well, okay. But, when a first responder is trying to settle a situation with us, it would be beneficial if they knew what works and what does not.
We have had several situations where GPD was called to calm Eric. Often, the officers wanted to help with care and compassion. And they did. But it required much coaching from me. There was one incident where the officers were making it worse. And there are honest reactions that they do not care to respond to such situations. It is hard. It is heartbreaking. It is. And it is our life.
Neli spoke of his mom and how she got him through the injustice. Now, he wonders what will happen when she’s not there.
That is a question in all our minds. Awareness, acceptance, training, accommodations, respect, regard– in every corner of life must be addressed.
Aline Yamashita is a mom, a teacher and former senator. She served in the 31st and 32nd Guam Legislatures. You may write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.