Discovering Discrepancies: The Mistreatment of Adults with Developmental Disabilities in the Legal System

On a cool, crisp February morning in a quiet, snowy residential Toronto neighbourhood, the city woke up to gun shots being fired at a man wearing nothing more than a hospital gown, fleeing from the local psychiatric hospital ward, and running down the streets with two pairs of scissors in his hands. After the man’s death, questions were raised to the police force who acted out of sheer instinct rather than addressing the man’s mental illness or seeking proper professional support. For me, this marked a turning point in my own understanding of how the legal system in Canada treats people with mental illness or developmental disabilities. A system that creates numerous hurdles and disadvantages both from the perspective of the victim and the offender.

Our View of Victims
It is almost common knowledge that people with disabilities are more susceptible to experiencing crime done to them than the general population. The reasons are numerous, but largely stem from an inability to fully communicate consent, one’s needs, or danger. Even more disturbing is the fact that media and society in general fail to acknowledge the severity of the crimes done against people with disabilities and downplay the detrimental effects such actions can have on one’s personhood. Most notably, Leigh Ann Davis, a social worker for The Arc commented on the fact that committed crimes are often referred to as “abuse” or “neglect” rather than “rape” or “murder.”[1]

In the United Kingdom, a recent magazine article was published entitled, “Justice is Served, Unless You’re Disabled” in which author Ryan Kyle addressed the stunning fact that while all other forms of hate crime have decreased significantly in recent years, violence towards people with disabilities has increased by 20%.[2] Kyle further argues that when these crimes are committed, people with disabilities have nowhere to go for support because there are few lawyers who will take on such cases and of those who do, not all are within the law themselves.[3] Realizing the disparity of justice in this situation, Kyle urges his readers to take action, to educate themselves, and to raise awareness on these matters for the general public. In particular he raises the issue of childhood bullying and the lack of support kids with disabilities face and asks the question: what is this teaching our children about the way we interact with those who are different than us?

In the United States alone, statistics point to the fact that people with developmental disabilities are 4-10% more likely to be victims of crime than those without a disability.[4] Children in particular are over three times more likely to experience abuse, and some statistics claim that as many as 90% of children with disabilities may be bullied within the school system.[5] Our society definitely has a long way to go in how we respond and relate to such horrifying evidence of mistreating those who already find themselves marginalized.

Observing Offenders

According to research done by The Arc, while people with disabilities only comprise around 2-3% of the American population, they account for 4-10% of those who find themselves in prison.[6] The Foundation for People With Learning Disabilities (FPLD), a U.K. initiative, suggests that as many as 7% of adult prisoners in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have an IQ of under 70 and another 25% have an IQ under 80, and up to 60% of prisoners have difficulty communicating.[7]  The FPLD further acknowledges the legal system’s lack of clearly explaining the reasons for arrest and trial in many situations and the inability to locate proper support systems to guide someone with a developmental disability through the rigorous legal process.

For someone with a developmental disability, involvement in committing a crime is not always what it seems. In many cases, people with disabilities may be unknowingly used as accomplices by those they rely on for support, such as parents or caretakers.  They may also unknowingly leave a crime scene prematurely, feel intimidated by the overwhelming police presence and thus confess to crimes they did not really commit, or pretend to understand their legal rights in an attempt to cover up their disability due to shame or fear.[8] Furthermore, although the death penalty is not permitted for people with developmental disabilities across America, it is still largely the responsibility of individual States to determine what qualifies as a disability.

Finding Fairness

While countries like the U.S., U.K., and Canada still have a long way to go in terms of making our legal system more accessible for people with disabilities, we are starting to move in the right direction. Organizations such as The Arc, and the Big Issue (both of which have been quoted in this article) identify and address the issues surrounding the unfair treatment people with disabilities face and urge their readers to also raise public awareness. While one person alone cannot effect massive change, it should be our individual responsibility to determine how we will treat everyone with respect and equality. We need to be conditioning our children from a young age to see everyone as a unique and whole person created and loved by the Creator. We need to ask our churches to raise their voice and address such matters openly, and we can consider reading up on these issues and lobbying our government officials. We do not have the time and space to be silent any longer and passively watch injustice take place. As the body of Christ we are called to act and to act now!
[1] “People With Intellectual Disability in the Criminal Justice System: Victims and Suspects,” August 2009,
[2]   Ryan Kyle, “Justice is Served Unless You’re Disabled,” The Big Issue, February 22-28, 2016, 38.
[3] Ibid.
[7] “Criminal Justice System,” N.D.,

Photo Credit: Google Images 




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