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Serving Victims With Disabilities

Responding to Victims With Disabilities

Most people will face some type of disability at some point in their lives. The disability could be temporary, such as a broken leg; connected to age, such as hearing or vision loss; the result of a disease, such as cancer or heart disease; the result of an accident, such as a spinal cord injury or amputation; or may be a late-onset condition or the result of life circumstances, such as schizophrenia, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder.57 Therefore, it is important to provide programs and services that are not only barrier free, but also adapted to fulfill the needs of all people equally.

How To Interact With Victims With Disabilities

First Response to Victims of Crime is a practical DVD with a companion guidebook designed for law enforcement responding to victims with disabilities such as Alzheimer's disease, mental illness, or intellectual disabilities, as well as victims who are blind or visually impaired or deaf or hard-of-hearing. The DVD also addresses older victims, child victims, immigrants, and all other victims of crime. It offers basic guidelines and tips on how best to approach and interact with victims who have disabilities, such as the following:

  • Avoid expressing pity with phrases such as "suffering from Alzheimer's disease" and "a victim of mental illness."
  • Do not express admiration for the abilities or accomplishments of victims in light of their disability.
  • Be mindful of the underlying painful message communicated to victims by comments such as "I can't believe they did this to someone like you," "She's disabled and he raped her anyway" or "To steal from a blind man. That's got to be the lowest." The message these phrases send is that one considers people who have a disability as less than complete human beings.

Taking Cues From Victims

Look for cues from victims and do not hesitate to ask how you and other responders can best assist them. According to the National Protocol for Sexual Assault Forensic Examinations, service providers should gain a basic understanding of the concerns of victims with disabilities. For example, they may be reluctant to report crimes or consent to exams for fear of losing their independence. Others may try to disguise or hide their disabilities in efforts to fit in with the mainstream population. And some may want to talk about their perceptions of how their disabilities might have made them vulnerable to the attack.58

Compound or Leading Questions

Frame your questions carefully:

  • Use language that is easy to understand. For example, avoid asking compound questions such as, "Who were you with and what happened?" Compound questions may confuse any victim but can be even more difficult for individuals with mild or moderate intellectual disabilities. Instead, use shorter, simpler questions and give the victim time to answer each: "Were you alone?" "Who was with you?" "What happened?"
  • Be cautious about asking yes or no (leading) questions. For example, yes or no questions may be more appropriate for victims with Alzheimer's disease than questions that require victims to think or recall a sequence of events.59 However, people with mild or moderate intellectual disabilities may be anxious to please the questioner and may say yes—even when they do not understand the question or the truthful answer is no. For this reason, it is equally important not to ask leading questions of suspects with intellectual disabilities. A false confession may result.60

Sensory Disabilities and Communication

When assisting victims with sensory disabilities, be aware of the equipment and resources that victims are comfortable using and understand the basics of communicating with these devices. This equipment may include TTY machines, word boards, speech synthesizers, and anatomically correct dolls; resources may include interpreters.

Be aware that victims with sensory disabilities may prefer communicating through an intermediary who is familiar with their specific patterns of speech. For example, individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may not understand sign language or read lips, and not all blind persons can read Braille. You can obtain technical assistance through—

  • AbleData—Assistive Technology Database: AbleData provides objective information about assistive technology products and rehabilitation equipment available from domestic and international sources. Its database contains information on more than 30,000 assistive technology products with detailed descriptions of each product, including price and company information.
  • American Foundation for the Blind: This Web site provides a searchable engine to help you find organizations throughout the country that provide services to people who are blind or visually impaired. The foundation also produces and distributes talking books and other audio materials.
  • Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc.: This private, nonprofit telecommunications and human services organization was designed and is administered exclusively for and by people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. It provides information on telecommunication relay services and interpreting services, including interpreter training and services to 30 states.

Service Appointments

It may take longer to provide services to victims with disabilities. Schedule extra time and avoid rushing through exams, interviews, and appointments. Rushing through such procedures may not only distress victims, but may also lead to missed evidence and information.

OVC offers the DVD Serving Crime Victims With Disabilities, which includes first-person accounts of how crime affects people with disabilities and includes information on crime victims' rights and resources.

Friends, Family, and Caregivers

Victims with disabilities may have relationships with their assailants—the assailants may be caretakers, family members, or friends—and these cases often come with high rates of repeat victimization. Therefore, it is important that SARTs respect victims' wishes to have or not to have caretakers, family members, or friends present during appointments, interviews, and exams. Additionally, although family, caretakers, and friends may be accustomed to speaking on behalf of individuals with disabilities, it is critical that they not influence the victims' statements during interviews. Ideally, if victims need assistance (e.g., from language interpreters or mental health professionals), those providing aid should not already have relationships with the victims.