Cover: Intellectual, Developmental, and Physical Disabilities in U.S. Legal Settings

Intellectual, Developmental, and Physical Disabilities in U.S. Legal Settings

Perspectives from People with Relevant Experience

Published Nov 30, 2023

by Alina I. Palimaru, Allyson D. Gittens, Stephanie Brooks Holliday

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Research Questions

  1. How do people with disabilities experience the civil and criminal legal systems in the United States, and what are the challenges that they face when attempting to navigate these systems?
  2. What accommodations are available for people with disabilities in the civil and criminal legal systems, and for which disabilities are accommodations lacking?

One-quarter of adults in the United States live with some type of disability. Managing life with a disability requires complex support, and research shows that people with disabilities face greater barriers to medical, social, and other forms of assistance than people without disabilities. Challenges are compounded when people with disabilities interact with the civil or criminal legal system in any given role, including when they are suspected of a crime, facing criminal charges, incarcerated, or navigating the civil legal system.

In this report, the authors explore the experiences of people with a variety of disabilities as these individuals navigate the civil and criminal legal systems in the United States. Drawing on firsthand experiences of professionals, practitioners, family members, and people with lived experience, the authors' findings highlight challenges with disability accommodations across legal system settings, as well as opportunities to investigate research and practice gaps.

This report can be read as a stand-alone report but can also be used in conjunction with two related publications, which (1) document findings from an environmental scan and (2) outline recommendations for future research focused on this population.

Key Findings

  • Disability is a complex experience. Many disabilities occur on a spectrum, with fluctuations in the short and long term. Disabilities co-occur with other disabilities or with other chronic health issues. Interviewees said the conflation of mental illness with intellectual and developmental disabilities was a problem.
  • Participants spoke mostly about experiences in the criminal legal system, identifying challenges and opportunities for improvement across settings.
  • Challenges related to hearing impairments and intellectual and developmental disabilities were predominantly about communication support. This was true in both civil and criminal legal settings.
  • Across disabilities, interviewees said ableism (or prejudice) underpinned many of the disadvantages that they described.
  • Although many participants agreed that physical disabilities were better accommodated than other types of disabilities, the interviews revealed many ways in which accessibility was incomplete.
  • An important finding that aligns with prior evidence was the perceived uneven implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act across and within states, as well as across and within legal system settings.
  • Future research should use community-based participatory research from design to dissemination.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and was conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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