Program Profile

Impact Impact Feature Issue on Violence Against Women with Developmental or Other Disabilities

Disability Education for Law Enforcement:
Back to Life's Infusion Approach


Jeri Houchins is Director of Back to Life, Round Rock, Texas. She may be reached by e-mail at

The training supervisor for a metropolitan police department had already received training on working with persons with developmental disabilities, but decided to come to our workshop out of courtesy to the local advocacy sponsor. In one of the role-play activities, he was asked to demonstrate how he would begin an interview with a rape victim who had a cognitive disability. In an effort to establish rapport, he introduced himself as Joe Brown, said he was from the police department and inquired as to how

One of the detectives had just returned from an infused course. He took the time to explain to her what information he needed,and knew to ask if she used a Liberator. As a result, she became the primary witness in the trial.

she felt. He explained that she had certain rights such as getting the assistance of a victim service provider and participating in the adjudication process, which would include the sentencing phase where she could make a victim statement. In an effort to “accommodate,” he spoke very slowly and very loud! Here’s what transpired from there:

Officer: Do you understand what I just told you?

Victim: Yes.

Officer: Do you have any questions?

Victim: No.

Me: Tell me in your own words what he just said.

Victim: He said I could get help.

Me: What else did he say?

Victim: That someone could help me.

Officer: Yeah, but don’t you remember I said you could participate in the adjudication process?

Victim: Oh yes, I’m sorry! I remember now that you did tell me I could participate. (The officer smiled proudly thinking he had successfully demonstrated accommodating interview techniques.)

Me: Judy, can you tell the officer what participate means?

Victim: Yes, it means that someone can help me!!!!!!

Why didn’t the “already trained” officer know how to do it right? This question caused me great consternation! Was the content of his original training poor? Was his instructor one of those boring “talking heads” that mandates the audience to tune out? Was he one of those narcissistic officers who already knew it all? Possibly, but I had witnessed many similar scenarios across the nation and it seemed unlikely that there were that many poor curricula, poor instructors, and egotistical peace officers!

Historically, the criminal justice system typically ignored the need to provide training on disability issues. They perceived that people with disabilities did not get involved in crime because most were “safely” in institutions or families protected the few that were in the community. With the signing of Americans with Disabilities Act and the implementation of community living, most state peace officer commissions acknowledged that training on disabilities should be offered. Disability advocates across the country (myself included) developed specialized training curricula, offered special needs workshops, made disability-focused presentations, and jumped at any opportunity to specifically “enlighten” the criminal justice industry! What happened? Classes were small unless the “chief” mandated their officers to attend. Students believed they were wasting time hearing about people they really don’t come in contact with rather than being on the street helping the people that are really in the community. Pupils’ (pun intended) eyes rolled in back of their heads either from the “oh, brother” reaction or because they were trying to stay awake! Participants were typically there in body only and usually exited at the lunch break. Resentment ran rampant as self-advocates professed their desire to be treated equally while we enthusiastically offered specialized activities on how to treat this population special! The result – the proverbial BACKLASH!!!

After many sleepless nights, I knew that people with disabilities should be treated equally – acknowledged that we are different but that there is nothing “special” about us. Individual differences are the one thing that all people have in common. Our disability is one of our individual differences just as we recognize the individual difference in a Nebraskan whose primary language is Spanish or in a African American whose eyes are blue.

Following this logic, I asked myself why we segregated our information rather than infused it naturally into existing law enforcement and victim service curricula. For example, when interview skills are taught to law enforcement and victim service providers, students learn that when interviewing a rape victim who is Hispanic, they may need communication accommodations like an interpreter or cultural accommodations like having a family member present during the interview. No big deal. Students accept this eagerly because they realize this information will help them in their day-to-day work. No time wasted. No tune outs. No eye rolling. No resentment. No backlash.

That’s when I realized that the root of the problem we experienced in training law enforcement on disability issues may be in where the information is received rather than in what information is given, how it’s delivered or who receives it! If persons with developmental disabilities are equal and participating members of our communities, shouldn’t information about their individual differences be shared in the same format as that about the rest of society?

I shared my training analysis with Richard Sutton of the U.S. Bureau of Justice under the direction of Nancy Gist, and with Dave Spisak, the Executive Director of the Robert Presley Institute of Criminal Investigation. The institute is a major program of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. The institute program represents their best effort to provide contemporary, cutting edge training for California law enforcement investigators who are pivotal in working with both first responders and prosecutors. Every effort is made to insure that all courses provide the training needed for investigators to successfully serve their diverse communities. In that spirit, Dave and Dick (both by nature very progressive thinkers and daredevils at heart) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance agreed that the institute would be the perfect place to test our “with inclusion comes infusion” hypothesis.

Since the institute periodically revises all their core and crime-specific curricula, we decided to infuse the disability issues in each as the revisions came due. For each curriculum revision, a team of grassroots investigators, investigative trainers and at least one additional disability advocate were brought in to update the existing materials and infuse the “segregated” disability information and skills. General disability information, recognition/identification, and interaction/accommodation skills are now incorporated in the Core Interview and Interrogation Course as well as the crime specific curricula on sexual assault, child/adult abuse, robbery, financial crimes, and vice. Remaining courses are currently being modified with full infusion in all institute courses by the winter of 2001. Additionally, five scenario practicals were developed to test the investigators’ learned skills, two of which involve people with disabilities – a sexual assault victim that is blind and a “false lead” suspect with mental retardation. Finally, we are in the process of designing a new course on hate crime investigation and, since persons with disabilities are one of the protected classes under both the Federal and California hate crime acts, we have the opportunity to include our information rather than infuse it.

Ironically, at the beginning of each modification, we experienced many of the same resistance behaviors from the revision team members as we did in the criminal justice students in the segregated training classes. I realized that if we encouraged them to share their personal “war stories” that involved people with disabilities, it promoted brainstorming on how things could have been different if they had learned the skills we wanted to infuse. As a result, they became our most avid advocates, finding places throughout the trainings to reinforce the importance of recognizing and accommodating people with disabilities.

Does it work? Although the revised curricula are less than a year old, we already have smiles on our faces! Read two real life cases and decide for yourself:

Case 1: A rape victim with mental retardation was asked to go to a line-up to see if she could identify her perpetrator. Upon entering the dark room, the detective immediately realized her discomfort. He quickly turned on the light, sat down and carefully explained to her that the window was a mirror on one side so the “bad guy” couldn’t see her if she was behind it. He then showed her both sides of the mirrored window, let her walk up on the stage, and then had her go behind the mirrored window to watch him walk on the stage. Once she was given this simple demonstration accommodation, she turned to the detective and said, “Can we hurry up and turn the light off so I can show you the man that ripped my dress?”

Case 2: Investigators were assigned to conduct house-to-house interviews to see if anyone saw a robbery that had been committed in a suburban neighborhood. A lady with cerebral palsy lived in one of the houses close to the crime scene, but the detective who went to her house quickly dismissed the possibility of getting any information because she “could not talk” and “didn’t appear” to understand their questions. Fortunately, one of the other detectives had just returned from taking an infused institute course and offered to try to use his new skill to interview her. To make a long story short, he took the time to explain what information he needed and knew to ask if she used a Liberator.™ She became the primary witness in the trial because she was able to tell everything that happened since she was looking out her window when the robbery occurred!

So, based on our experience, when it comes to helping law enforcement personnel learn how to better work with women who have developmental disabilities, we would say: with inclusion, try infusion!