Giving the defenceless a voice in court

Posted on November 14, 2014

Crimes committed against people with developmental and other disabilities are similar in scope to crimes committed against women, children and the elderly, and yet the victimisation of people with disabilities remains largely unaddressed. This can be ascribed to their being perceived as voiceless and invisible members of society – a perception that makes them attractive targets for their perpetrators because they often believe that their victims will not be able to testify against them in court. Three large-scale research studies are currently under way at the University of Pretoria (UP) to change this situation.

One of these studies is being conducted by Ms Robyn White of the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) who is exploring the legal vocabulary needed to testify in court.

Research shows that, while there are higher rates of crime against people with disabilities, the rates of disclosure and reporting of these crimes to the police remain much lower than those perpetrated against able-bodied persons and that, in instances where crime and abuse are actually reported, they are often handled administratively rather than through criminal prosecution. This could be because of the fact that the people who form part of the legal protection system, such as the police and legal professionals, simply lack the knowledge of how to help a person with a disability or feel that the testimony of the disabled victim will not be admissible in court. Consequently it would seem that in cases where the victims are disabled either lighter court sentences are handed down or perpetrators are not prosecuted at all. As people with disabilities are often repeat victims, the fact that the perpetrator is not prosecuted can leave them stranded in a situation of continued abuse.

The above, combined with the fact that adults and children with disabilities are especially vulnerable to being victims of crime, necessitates the development of specific augmentative and alternative communication strategies, such as communication boards and vocabulary lists, that will enable illiterate adults and people with complex communication needs to report crimes and testify in court.

Communication boards are devices that make language visible and accessible to individuals with speech impediments. The boards typically utilise picture communication symbols, words or phrases, or a combination of all three, which can be displayed either on a cardboard background or on a high-tech device such as an iPad. The person using the device can then simply point to the symbol or word that represents what they need to communicate, thereby enabling them to express themselves in a way that is easily understood. Multiple communication boards are usually developed to address both specific and generic vocabulary needs in a variety of contexts and are used with great success to help disabled persons to communicate in many situations.

The research currently being conducted by Ms White aims to describe the vocabulary that will assist victims of crime with complex communication needs, specifically children and illiterate adults, to testify in court. She has used both qualitative and quantitative strategies in her preliminary work in order to strengthen the results obtained, as her research explores a new and important field that can have a significant impact on the lives of many victims with complex communication needs.

Professionals in the legal system are assisting Ms White in determining the core vocabulary that illiterate victims of crime will require to testify in court. As part of the study, these professionals will rank the identified vocabulary based on frequency of use so as to determine the core items required. The identified core vocabulary will then be socially validated by relevant professionals in the legal system, after which an appropriate and effective method for collating legal fringe vocabulary will be suggested.

It is stressful and often terrifying for any person, but probably even more so for a person with complex communication needs, to attend court and give evidence of a crime that was perpetrated against him or her, especially if the offender is present at the hearing. With the right instruction and relevant vocabulary, it is possible for a person with little or no functional speech to be a competent witness. If communication devices with relevant vocabulary are available, and if witnesses are trained in the use of the specific vocabulary, it could end the silence of these defenceless victims of crime.

This is the first article in a series of three. The other large scale projects currently underway in the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University of Pretoria, will be discussed in two separate articles. These projects are: a Centre staff project, led by Prof Juan Bornman, the Director of CAAC at UP, which forms part of the Faculty of Humanities Research theme “Vulnerable Children”. This project investigates the use of communication boards to disclose victimization.  The third study is focussed on training relevant service providers (e.g. police officers) in taking statements from people with significant communication disabilities. 

- Author Ansa Heyl

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