AnnMarie Thorpe, Mark Sena, Sen. Jo Comerford, Max Callahan, Chief Tyrone Parham, Ilyse Levine-Kanji and Amy Footit

State Senate Passes ‘Blue Envelope’ Bill Championed by UMass Disability Services, Police Chief

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation filed by Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton and supported by UMass Amherst stakeholders that seeks to facilitate better interactions between police and individuals with autism spectrum disorder. The measure, known as the “Blue Envelope” bill, was championed by UMass Disability Services and UMass Amherst Police Chief Tyrone Parham.

UMass Police Chief Tyrone Parham, Max Callahan and Senator Comerford stand at the Massachusetts Senate Rostrum
UMass Police Chief Tyrone Parham, Max Callahan and Senator Jo Comerford stand at the Massachusetts Senate Rostrum.

The bill now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration. The legislation would create a voluntary program to make available special blue envelopes to people with autism spectrum disorder that hold their driver’s license, registration and insurance card, which can be handed to a police officer in the event of a traffic stop. On the outside of the envelope would be specific instructions on the driver’s diagnosis, impairments, triggers, emergency contact information and best practices for communicating.

Disability Services Director AnnMarie Thorpe, UMass Inclusive Learning Interim Program Coordinator Mark Sena and Disability Services Departmental Assistants Max Callahan and Amy Footit joined Parham and other advocates at the State House for Thursday’s vote.

“Massachusetts police officers conduct thousands of traffic stops each year. While most of these interactions are relatively ‘routine,’ officers do not know who they are interacting with before the traffic stop, so they proceed with caution. Each driver reacts differently when they are pulled over by the police,” Parham said. “The introduction of the blue envelope under stressful interactions will provide immediate information and context to the officer as they begin to communicate. This will be instrumental to help bridge the communication gap for both motorists and police officers.” 

“I am deeply grateful to Senate President Karen Spilka, Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, Transportation Chair Brendan Crighton and my colleagues for passing this important legislation,” Comerford said. “The Blue Envelope bill will make our Commonwealth a safer place for people who are neuro-diverse. It moves us closer to equal opportunity and access for people of all abilities.”

“The Blue Envelope bill would be a game changer for our family and for so many Massachusetts residents,” said Ilyse Levine-Kanji, an Executive Committee member of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts. “Like many people with autism, my 25-year-old son Sam does not have any physical characteristics that indicate he has autism. In a stressful situation, where split-second decisions must be made, I’m relieved that a police officer could see a blue envelope in Sam’s car and immediately understand that any unusual behavior or speech pattern is a result of autism. Thus, this bill could dramatically decrease the possibility of a tragic misunderstanding. Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts is extremely grateful for Senator Commerford’s leadership in introducing and championing this commonsense initiative and to the Senate for moving so quickly to pass the bill.”

For drivers with autism spectrum disorder, being stopped by a police officer can be particularly challenging. At times, law enforcement officers or other first responders have had little or no training about how to communicate appropriately with people with autism spectrum disorder. 

In other states, such as Connecticut, a similar voluntary program has been shown to reduce stress, facilitate better communication and improve safety.