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Supporting Youth with Disabilities in the Justice System

Even though all young people are different, each deserves fair and equal treatment by our justice system. Whether youth become involved as a witness or a victim of crime, or as someone accused of doing something wrong, every youth should expect to be treated fairly by our legal system.
Research shows that youth with disabilities have very different experiences with the court system than other youth. The nature of their disability can have an enormous effect on how they are treated at all levels of the court process. This is true whether they have a physical disability, an intellectual disability, or a learning disability.

Not all disabilities can be easily identified or diagnosed. You may not even realize that the youth you are working with has a disability. For this reason, it is important that people who work with young clients are aware of the possible impact a disability can have in the courts. Of course, it is not possible to be an expert on all disabilities, but it helps to be aware of the possibilities and to learn ways we can make the system fairer for all youth.

Parents, teachers, social workers, youth group leaders, and anyone else who spends time with youth can make a difference. If you know of a young person with a disability going through the justice system, here are some ways you can support them. Whether the youth is accused of a crime or is the witness or victim of one, these tips can help.

Always support youth with disabilities in a way that respects their dignity and promotes their self-esteem.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Inappropriate outbursts of frustration or anger may not necessarily be signs of disrespect. Some youth with disabilities have trouble interacting with others, and some outbursts may be the result of a disability. This may also be true where a youth shows short attention spans and restlessness.

Beware of stereotypes! They create problems and impact heavily on youth with disabilities. Many young people are assumed to be unreliable witnesses because they have a disability. Helping them find another way to tell their story can help get their evidence into court.

Take time to learn about disabilities and how to recognize them. Remember, not all disabilities are visible.

Learn about human rights legislation, appropriate protocols, and social policies that support youth with disabilities. Request formal training about disability issues such as inclusion and ways to provide individual accommodation.

Get to know the support services offered in New Brunswick. The Premier’s Council on the Status of Disabled Persons is a great place to start. Involving a parent or advocate right at the start will help you get the most accurate information and prepare the best case plan for your client.

Involve the young person’s advocates right from the beginning. If you wait until the end of the proceeding you may miss out on valuable advice and information that could make a real difference. Many disability agencies have been around a long time and have helped clients through the system before.

Some youth with disabilities understand time differently. Learn other ways to establish a time frame such as relating one event to another significant event. For example, instead of “it happened on February 1st, 2002”, it may be more relevant for the young person to say “it happened the day after my birthday”.

Youth who are deaf or hard of hearing may not reveal that they did not hear you. A hearing aid does not ensure that every spoken word is heard.

Youth with visual impairments should be told before you touch them.

Adopt policies and practices that promote inclusion and that remove barriers for youth with disabilities. Some barriers may be physical such as ensuring access to buildings and offices for people who use wheelchairs. Other barriers may be psychological, such as dismissing all people with intellectual disabilities as unreliable witnesses.

Know where to obtain appropriate materials in different formats (eg Braille, ASL interpretation, voice print, etc.) so that a youth with a disability will have the opportunity to understand and participate in the process to his/her full potential.

Keep the young person and their support person informed as to what is happening. Try to keep the same people involved in the case from start to finish. This includes police, crown prosecutors, victim service workers, etc.

Always give youth with disabilities enough time to process the question you asked and to form their response.

When determining a sentence or case plan for a youth with a disability, the impact of the disability should be taken into account.

By educating ourselves we can change our own attitudes and the attitudes of others. This leads to the development of policies and work practices that will make our justice system more accessible and fair for everyone.

For more information contact:

Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick
P.O. Box 6000 Fredericton, N.B.
E3B 5H1 CANADA
Tel: (506) 453-5369
Fax: (506) 462-5193
Email:
pleisnb@web.ca

Special thanks to Fundy Regional Council Association for Community Living Supporting Youth with Disabilities in the Justice System.

 

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Disclaimer: Please note that our website contains general information about the law. This is not a complete statement of the law on particular topics. We try to update our publications often, but laws change frequently so it is important for you to check to make sure the information is up to date.  The information in our publications is not a substitute for legal advice. To receive legal advice about your specific situation, you need to speak to a lawyer.