PORTER COUNTY, Ind. — For the last eight years, a father and daughter in Northwest Indiana have been educating first responders and students on how to work with people with disabilities.

Tom Felter Jr., of Hebron, has been in emergency services since 1986. He’s always noticed a void in training first responders with how to treat people who have emotional and physical disabilities.

For the last 27 years, he proudly holds another job as father to Emily Felter — who has Down syndrome.

Knowing he wanted to combine his experience as Emily’s dad and a veteran first responder, Felter Jr. said one moment in Maryland told him to mobilize.

In 2013, 26-year-old Ethan Saylor was at a movie theater in Fredericksburg, Maryland watching “Zero Dark Thirty.” After the movie was over, Saylor wanted to watch it again — something Felter Jr. said is typical with people with disabilities.

“If we get somewhere and Emily is not ready to go in, we aren’t going in,” Felter Jr. said. “On the flip side, If we are at a restaurant and she’s not ready to leave, we don’t leave — folks with Down syndrome have trouble with transition.”

Saylor, who was nearly 300 lbs., ended up being handcuffed and dragged out of the theater by multiple officers. He was placed face down and died of asphyxiation, yet no officers were charged.

“That could have been Emily,” Felter Jr. said.

The first Emily Talk in 2015

So in 2015 after discussing it with his daughter, the pair started “The Emily Talk.”

Throughout Northwest Indiana, Emily and Felter Jr speak at several fire departments, utility companies and even schools.

Sarah Collins, a longtime EMS educator, recently had Felter Jr and Emily come in to speak with high school students taking part in career education.

Emily before speaking to students at Hobart High School

“They learn with disabilities to just be patient,” Collins said. “It might take you a little bit longer, but just be patient.”

Patience is one of the central themes Felter Jr. preaches when he is speaking.

After setting the tone by sharing the tragic story of Ethan Saylor, he has attendees write their names down on legal pads. Emily goes and collects them and they are able to share some brief one-on-one time.

Emily really likes doing the classes, but her participation level depends on her mood that day.

“The myth that Down syndrome folks are always happy isn’t true,” Felter Jr. said. “She has a range of emotions just like anyone else.”

After a few years of doing “The Emily Talk,” it got the attention of filmmaker Carmen Vincent, who was a student at Valparaiso University at the time.

“After meeting me at an Emily Talk, she asked if she could do a documentary on her,” Felter Jr. said. “I said ‘Let’s go,’ Covid was getting started but she was embedded in our family for two years.”

Due to Emily’s aforementioned range of emotions, Vincent asked if she could record the 27-year-old not having a good time.

“‘If you want a true depiction, keep going — this is us,'” Felter Jr. replied.

Vincent released a 30-minute documentary called “Teacher of Patience” on the Felter family that has gone on to be featured at numerous film festivals over the globe.

Emily and the documentary team at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis

Even though Emily has Down syndrome, Felter Jr. makes sure to highlight other disabilities like autism.

“Someone with autism, you have no idea,” Felter Jr. said. “You can’t just pick them out of a crowd — autism makes it hard to communicate.”

He said the responses to the talk have been very positive and rewarding.

The father and daughter have no signs of stopping soon. Their next “Emily Talk” is scheduled for March 30 at Valparaiso University.