People with hidden disabilities victims


“Jesse is 18 years old, has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a borderline IQ, functions socially at the level of a six-year-old but has no outward signs of disability. He is on probation for second-degree assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and burglary. The assault charge involved touching, not rape or violence, and burglary, meaning he was in a room where he did not have permission to be, and no theft was involved. He was arrested for violating his no-contact order and is now in jail. All we [his parents] were told is that he hugged a child on his special education bus. The bus aide was present, right behind the boy who had just gotten on the bus, but it happened anyway.”


Program Manager, National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability™

Both adults and youth with hidden disabilities are becoming involved in the criminal justice system as victims and suspects at alarmingly high rates but without much fanfare – until a crisis happens. And the crisis doesn’t typically occur because a person has a disability, but more often because the disability was never recognized in the first place, or it’s not brought to light during the criminal justice/legal process.

It is challenging for law enforcement, victim advocates, attorneys and other criminal justice professionals to spot disabilities that have no outward distinguishable signs. Still, it is critical to be prepared for the possibility that a hidden disability may be present, such as a “mild” intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

After recognizing a disability, these professionals can use proactive strategies to increase the likelihood of a safe outcome and ensure the person’s rights are protected, whether victim or suspect.

Family members, self-advocates and criminal justice professionals often do not realize that people with disabilities are involved in America’s criminal justice system at alarmingly high rates.

In 2012, the National Crime Victim Survey discovered that the rate of violent victimization for people with disabilities was nearly three times the rate among persons without disabilities. They are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system as suspects/offenders. While those with intellectual disabilities comprise 2-3 percent of the general population, they represent 4-10 percent of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and jails.

“Hidden” disabilities affect a person’s brain and can cause difficulty with mental tasks such as learning, reasoning, planning, abstract thinking and judgment. People with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD), in particular, pose a real challenge to the criminal justice system because not only is their disability harder to recognize, sometimes people with I/DD do not want to reveal their disability. They may even pretend to understand things they don’t to mask or hide their disability. This creates a significant challenge considering that while 2-3 percent of people in the general population have an intellectual disability, out of that number a vast majority have a “mild” intellectual disability so that the disability is not easy to identify at first glance.

Help is available

The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability™ (NCCJD) is educating criminal justice professionals about the often hidden nature of “mild” disabilities.

The NCCJD is a training and technical assistance center funded by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance that serves as a national clearinghouse for information and training on the topic of people with disabilities as victims, witnesses and suspects or offenders of crime. The NCCJD is partnering with a broad spectrum of organizations and professionals, including law enforcement, legal, victim advocacy and disability fields at the national, state and local levels to ensure the rights of people with “mild,” and often hidden, disabilities are brought to light.

It’s a task that is too big for any one person or organization to take on alone. The goal is to build the criminal justice system, so it can respond to gaps in existing services for people with disabilities. It cannot be met without dedicated criminal justice and disability advocates who have seen the destruction and tragedy that can occur and want to do their best to find solutions. Every parent, advocate, self-advocate, law enforcement officer, victim service provider, attorney, judge and other criminal justice professional has an important role to play.

The NCCJD is working to create quality, sustainable training for the criminal justice community by offering Pathways to Justice™: A Comprehensive Training Program for Law Enforcement, Victim Service Providers and Attorneys on Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities. The day-long, train-the-trainer program is being piloted throughout the United States by disability response teams in 2015.

To learn more about this exciting training initiative and how you can get involved, view the Pathways To Justice™ training video and use the accompanying conversation guide to begin the conversation in your community. To find these and other resources, go to or

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