Serving Victims of Crimes with Disabilities

Published May 16, 2022

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that individuals with a disability are more than twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime. Crimes involving physical aggression, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes against individuals with disabilities often go unreported, which leads to underreporting, and makes it difficult to respond to the true scope of this abuse.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and its guidebook

The DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) has a mission to support victims with disabilities. The OVC attempts to serve these victims through conference support, demonstration projects, national training, technical assistance initiatives, and developing publications, online resources, and tools to help providers.

The OVC has even developed a training DVD and guidebook for first responders who are called to help victims of crime who have disabilities, titled Victims with Disabilities: Collaborative, Multidisciplinary First Response. The guidebook focuses on victims of crime with intellectual and communication disabilities.

The OVC’s guidebook states that most people, including first responders, unconsciously subscribe to disability-negative attitudes. This unconscious negative attitude can seriously taint an interaction between a first responder and a disabled victim of crime. Moreover, it can even contribute to individuals with disabilities underreporting crime in the future. The OVC suggests that the solution to reducing stigma surrounding having a disability could be found through information gathering, organized classroom activities, personal exploration, and social exposure and interaction.

Initial contact with a victim of crime

Initial contact with a crime victim who has a disability is one of the most crucial points that a first responder has to gain the victim’s trust and develop a meaningful connection with the individual. The OVC’s guidebook lists eight essential elements that are key to effectively serving victims of crime through an officer’s initial contact with the victim.

Initial Communication – Upon first encountering the victim, a first responder should start by communicating:

  1. That the victim is not in any trouble.
  2. That the responder is there to help.
  3. That what happens from that moment forward will be the responsibility of the perpetrator and not the victim.

Proceeding with the eight elements

Physical Position

A first responder’s physical position subconsciously affects the perceived balance of power. When communicating with a victim with a disability, a first responder should stand wherever they can best be observed by the crime victim. A first responder should try to position themselves at eye-level, especially if the victim is a child.

Space

First responders should acknowledge that individuals with different types of disabilities need more or less space than others. Consider that a victim with autism or Asperger’s syndrome may potentially require quite a bit of space, but a victim who is deaf or hard-of-hearing could possibly require a normal or decreased amount of space between themselves and the first responder. The first responder should ask the victim or the victim’s care provider about particular space needs rather than assume how much space the victim prefers or requires.

Touch

Some disabilities involve a sensitivity to touch, so a first responder should avoid touching a crime victim who has a disability. A victim with a disability or prior trauma could be triggered by touch. A handshake will usually suffice, but the responder should still ask either the victim or the victim’s care provider whether this is acceptable.

Eye contact

A first responder should never demand eye contact when interacting with a victim who has a disability. The first responder should allow eye contact to be initiated by the victim instead, because eye contact may be unpleasant or painful for the victim. It is also important to keep in mind that individuals with disabilities may have different body movements, postures, verbal hesitations, eye contact, and eye movements as a result of their disability. This differs from training that teaches first responders to be suspicious of individuals with certain facial or bodily movements. A difference in body movements or eye contact does not mean that an individual is guilty of suspicious conduct or lying.

Voice

A first responder should speak in their regular voice, and their tone should be friendly, supportive, and inquiring. Even if the victim is deaf, a responder should use normal volume, tone, and enunciation when using their voice to communicate with them.

Lighting

Ensure that there is ample lighting for victims with hearing and vision disabilities. Reduce the amount of light directly behind both the first responder and the victim. Incorporate nonfluorescent lights for individuals with sensitivities to toxins, such as individuals with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

Distractions

A victim with disabilities may be easily distracted or traumatized by equipment such as a radio, beeper, gun, phone, or other paraphernalia. The first responder should try to minimize and eliminate all distractions if possible. Additionally, remove any distraction occurring in the background of the scene, such as a radio or a TV that has been left on, by asking the victim or the victim’s care provider if it can be turned off.

Attempt to record

A first responder should always try to make an audio or video recording of their interaction with the victim and others interviewed at the scene. Recordings can help build a stronger case and reduce the need for re-interviews.

Conclusion

Victims with disabilities who do not report crimes to the police state that it is mostly due to a few common beliefs, including a fear of reprisal, fear of getting an offender into trouble (which could jeopardize their living situation), belief that the police would not help, assumption that the crime wasn’t important enough to report, and perception that the victim would not be believed.

By properly approaching a victim during initial contact, first responders can build trust and rapport between them and victims of crimes with disabilities, which can lay the groundwork for smooth interactions and allow more victims of crime to come forward and reach out to police for help.

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