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

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

A Proposed Agenda for Future Research

Published Nov 30, 2023

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

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Research Question

  1. How can researchers address the gaps in our understanding of the experiences of people with disabilities in the legal system?

The legal system can be difficult to navigate, even for individuals who have the benefit of resources, support, and knowledge about how the system works. For individuals with disabilities, it can be even more challenging.

To better understand the experiences of people with disabilities who encounter the criminal and civil legal systems, the authors of this report conducted two studies. First, they carried out an environmental scan of academic and gray literature published in the past 15 years, focused on adults in the United States. Second, they interviewed 32 stakeholders, including professionals and people with disabilities and legal system experience, to (1) understand what it is like to experience the U.S. legal system while having a disability and (2) identify key knowledge gaps and research needs. The goals of this research were to understand the current landscape of the literature; explore the ways in which policies address the needs and rights of people with disabilities; and understand key challenges, gaps in knowledge, and promising practices.

In this report, the authors triangulate the findings of these two studies, garnering input from an advisory board of people with professional and/or lived experience, to propose a research agenda to guide researchers in their exploration of concerns related to individuals with disabilities and their interactions with the legal system.

Key Findings

The environmental scan revealed variability in how disability was defined and demonstrated that research tended to concentrate on a small number of topics and methods, leaving many gaps

  • The most common disabilities reported in the literature were intellectual disabilities (56 percent of articles), developmental disabilities (28 percent), and other cognitive disabilities (24 percent). Sensory and mobility-related disabilities were less common.
  • Articles varied with respect to the level of detail or analysis they provided for certain disabilities. Some presented an in-depth analysis of a single group in a single context; others reported on multiple groups at a lower level of detail.
  • Most of the literature (90 percent) focused just on the criminal legal system, especially issues related to capital sentencing and incarceration.

The qualitative interviews highlighted that disability is a complex experience, and peoples' needs often go unmet when they are interacting with the criminal and civil legal systems

  • 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.
  • Participants spoke mostly about experiences in the criminal legal system, identifying challenges and opportunities for improvement across settings.
  • Across disabilities, interviewees said ableism (or prejudice) underpinned many of the disadvantages that they described.
  • An important finding was the perceived uneven implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act across and within states, as well as across and within legal system settings.


  • Using the findings of these studies and input from an advisory board comprising people with professional and/or lived experience, the authors identified ten priorities for researchers in their work related to people with disabilities in the legal system.
  • Four recommendations relate to the topics covered by the research: (1) clarify the nomenclature for disability, (2) align the topics of future research with the understudied issues, (3) use an adapted version of the Sequential Intercept Model as a framework to guide research on the criminal legal system, and (4) increase the focus on issues related to the civil legal system.
  • Six recommendations focus on the research methodology: (1) increase the use of qualitative and mixed methods research; (2) increase the focus on evaluating policies, programs, services, activities, and accommodations; (3) center the input of individuals with disabilities and their families in the research; (4) apply an intersectional lens to conducting research; (5) enhance the quality of data collected; and (6) make the research available and accessible.

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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