Access to Justice System and Stereotypes

Unfortunately, the promise of “justice for all” continues to be elusive for people with disabilities, especially those with developmental disabilities. Civil rights abuses experienced by people with disabilities are often egregious, ranging from pervasive discrimination to neglect and instances of horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse that may go unprosecuted and unpunished.

Recognizing that people with disabilities are often denied access to the justice system, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and The Arc issued a joint position statement that reads, in part:

People with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who are victims, suspects or witnesses, like other residents of the United States, have the right to justice and fair treatment in all areas of the criminal justice system, including reasonable accommodations as necessary.[1]

The justice system sometimes reflects outdated stereotypes that impact access to justice for people with developmental disabilities. For example, people working in the law enforcement and justice systems can assume that people with developmental disabilities are incompetent and, therefore, unable to participate in the justice system in a meaningful way. Some might assume  that all people with developmental disabilities  have neither the physical or intellectual capacity to withstand the rigors of a trial.

Victims with disabilities are often treated as children who are incapable of assisting in their case and must be protected from reality. While it is true that attorneys and other representatives of the legal system may encounter unique challenges when working with individuals with developmental disabilities, these challenges can be addressed without jeopardizing an individual’s rights.

See the “Working with People with Disabilities” section of this website for more information about working with people with disabilities in the justice system.


The 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act brought attention to disability rights issues, the progress that has been made and recognition of the work that remains for the spirit and intent to the ADA to be realized.   The barriers that impede access to justice for people with disabilities, the gaps that must be bridged, and the personal experiences of individuals with disabilities who have been involved in the justice system are presented in this series of videos:


  1. ^Source: AAIDD Fact Sheet, Criminal Justice, retrieved from http://www.thearc.org/document.doc?id=3636.