“It is more likely that persons with disabilities will come into contact with the criminal justice system than members of the general public. This could be as a victim, a witness, a defendant or being suspected of a crime,” says Erna Viljoen, a researcher at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).
“It became increasingly evident that for persons with complex communication needs (CCN), there are little or no accommodations that enable them to access the justice system. Therefore we had to find a way of ensuring that the first port of call for persons with CCN, the police, were equipped to deal sensitively not only with the nature of their report or statement, but also with their disability” she said.
Reporting a crime begins at the local police station. To allow a crime to be investigated or pursued for further prosecution and ultimately a conviction, an accurate statement needs to be taken from the victim. This is an obvious challenge for the police in the case of persons with CCN. This is because persons with CCN are often unfairly judged as unreliable witnesses and their credibility is called into question. Therefore, much of the abuse and crimes which persons with CCN are victims of, are often not prosecuted due to a lack of credible and effective statements taken from them by police officers.
Researchers at UP’s Centre for AAC found that they needed to develop a sensitization programme for police officers to be able to take statements from persons with CCN. Focus groups with police officers were conducted to obtain insights about their level of understanding and sensitivity around many forms of disability with a special focus on persons with CCN. A data-driven and literature-based training programme was developed that allowed police officers to give input on the barriers they faced when they tried to help someone with CCN to give a statement.
A person who could not communicate using natural speech, was included as a trainer in this training programme aimed at increasing understanding and sensitivity towards disability aspects amongst police as well as providing them with practical experience in taking statements from non-speaking individuals. This pre-test post-test study (with a control group) found that a custom-designed short term training programme was effective in changing police officer’s knowledge, skills and attitudes towards persons with disability, including one of the most vulnerable disability groups, namely individuals with CCN.