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Communication Support for Disabled Crime Victims ‘Ignored’ by Justice System, Advocates Say

Disabled Canadians are at high risk of sexual abuse often because they can’t communicate with police.

Barbara Collier runs a training program to teach speech-language pathologists how to help people with disabilities communicate with police and in court. By Peter GoffinStaff Reporter
Mon., July 10, 2017

He needed to tell police he’d been sexually abused, but he couldn’t speak.

About a decade ago, speech-language pathologist Barbara Collier was called on to help a Toronto man with cerebral palsy communicate with police.

The man had suddenly become distraught when he heard one of his home care workers was coming to see him, but all he could do to express what had happened was to look down at his groin.

“I was able to explain how the man used his eyes to communicate and, together with the police, I gave the man several images of body parts which he was able to use to communicate that a caregiver . . . had sexually assaulted him,” said Collier.

People with disabilities have been identified by the justice department as being at particularly high risk of sexual abuse. Often they are targeted specifically because they can’t effectively report the crimes to police.

“The best victim (for an abuser) is going to be the one who can’t tell about it,” said Collier, executive director of the advocacy group Communications Disabilities Access Canada.

There are resources to help people with mental or physical disabilities communicate with police and court officials. But there’s a severe lack of awareness among Canadian courts and police forces when it comes to the need and availability of those resources, said Collier.

Since 2012, Collier’s organization has been training speech-language pathologists to act as “communications intermediaries” for people with disabilities in contact with the justice system.

Communications Disabilities Access Canada now has a roster of about 250 communications intermediaries across Canada, which the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General says it uses to find the right intermediary when one is needed.

The intermediary program received startup funding from the Department of Justice between 2012 and 2015, but no longer receives any government money.

And, while every courthouse in Ontario has an accessibility coordinator who can provide information on accommodations to people who request it, there’s no formal process within the justice system for witnesses or victims to be identified as needing a communications intermediary.

Nadine Ricketts, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General told the Star that “in general, a person with a disability and/or their advocate is in the best position to identify any disability related needs,” adding that a “judicial official may raise issues about accommodation services should they see a reason to do so.”

The problem is that people in need won’t necessarily self-identify when they come into contact with the justice system, Collier said.

In the U.K., it’s the Ministry of Justice that trains, and maintains a list of, communications intermediaries, and the “preferred” situation is that police officers identify disabled witnesses and victims and refer them to an intermediary at the early stages of an investigation.

Officials conducting interviews without the help of a communications intermediary might ask questions that are leading, or questions that have multiple components, which can be difficult for people with communication disabilities, said Joanna Birenbaum, a Toronto lawyer who has represented sexual assault complainants working with a communication intermediary.

Some people with disabilities may need visual aids or other ways to “anchor” questions related to abstract concepts like time, or “how” or “why,” Birenbaum added.

Anne Abbott has cerebral palsy. She cannot speak, but she communicates, with the help of an assistant, by pointing to letters and phrases on a board.

For Abbott, who once used an intermediary in court during a civil trial, it’s very helpful to have a communications assistant she is familiar with.

“I actually train my assistants myself and they learn . . . how to read my board,” Abbott said. “When they get to know me they can practically read my mind.”

Lawyer David Butt was hired by the family of an autistic woman known in court documents only as MGW.

In 2014, MGW, who is 30 but has the verbal abilities of a 5-year-old, said she had been sexually assaulted by a caregiver at her group home.

Her alleged assailant’s conviction and subsequent acquittal have drawn attention to the challenges faced by disabled complainants in the judicial system.

Justice professionals “should be proactive” about offering communications intermediaries to people with disabilities, Butt said.

“It’s the justice system professionals who know what is in store for a complainant,” Butt said. “(They) should be trained and informed and resourced

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