Persons with disabilities are most likely to become victims of crime and abuse

Posted on September 27, 2019

Persons with disabilities are far more likely to be victims of crime compared with non-disabled persons, says Professor Juan Bornman, Director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Augmentative & Alternative Communication.

Persons with little or no speech, in particular, are much more vulnerable to violence and abuse since some believe that “a silent victim is the perfect victim”, says Prof Bornman.

She says the centre is working to design alternative forms of communication to help people with disabilities to participate in the legal justice system, right from the giving of their statement to the police, how to support them in the court proceedings to counselling.

Criminal justice personnel involved in administration of justice need more information on how to deal with persons with disabilities, especially in the courtroom.

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Centre for Human Rights recently hosted a two-day training workshop aimed at building the capacity of criminal justice personnel on how to enable persons with disabilities to access justice.

Dianah Msipa, Programme Officer in the Disability Rights Unit, said: “This workshop was about how to achieve equal access to justice for persons with disabilities. The training is aimed at equipping criminal justice personnel involved in the administration of justice on a daily basis, such as police officers, magistrates, and prosecutors with knowledge on how to achieve access to justice.”

Professor Juan Bornman, Director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Augmentative & Alternative Communication; and Dianah Msipa, Programme Officer in the Disability Rights Unit.

She said the University hoped to equip workshop attendees with the knowledge they need to understand the barriers people with different kinds of disabilities face; as well as provide them with information on how to overcome challenges by using accommodations in the criminal justice system.

In many parts of the world, people with disabilities have historically been deprived of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Among these is the right to access justice. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is the first international legal instrument to include a substantive right on access to justice. The concept did exist, however, before the UNCRPD came into force in May 2008. It is usually framed as the right to an effective remedy in instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The inclusion of a substantive right on access to justice in the UNCRPD was a response to the lived experience of persons with disabilities who faced numerous barriers to accessing justice on an equal basis with others.

Persons with disabilities fail to enjoy the right to access justice on an equal basis with others due to the numerous barriers they face, including legal and procedural barriers, communication barriers, attitudinal barriers as well as environmental barriers.

Msipa says in cases where persons with disabilities who are vulnerable to violence and abuse do report complaints to the authorities they encounter many barriers. One such barrier is an attitudinal barrier whereby some officials display negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities based on the misconception that persons with disabilities, particularly intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, cannot be credible witnesses.

Lincoln Matjeke, Magistrate at Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court, said the workshop was an eye-opener for him.

“I have realised the amount of work that we need to do as judiciary and other stakeholders within the system. I can now distinguish different types and categories of disabilities. We need to be more accommodative as a judiciary.”

He said sometimes judicial officers misinterpret certain behavioral patterns as a person acting in contempt of court, “whereas the person is not comfortable with the environment and we need to probe a little more and try to establish whether they have a disability and take appropriate steps to accommodate that particular person”.

Disability Rights Unit: Annual Conference

UP’s Centre for Human Rights is hosting the 7th Annual African Disability Rights Conference from 11 to 12 November. Conference participants include persons with disabilities, their families and their representative organisations, policymakers, policy implementers and lawyers. This year’s theme is Fulfilling the right of persons with disabilities to live in the community: Promoting choice, inclusion and participation. 

For more information contact: Innocentia Mgijima-Konopi on 012 420 6398 or email [email protected]

- Author Xolani Mathibela

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