Special Considerations

 

 

 

• Understand that victims with disabilities may have physical, sensory, cognitive, developmental, or mental health disabilities, or a combination of disabilities. Make every effort to recognize issues that arise for victims with disabilities (both in general and in relation to their specific disability) and provide reasonable accommodations when working with them.

 

• Be aware that the risk of criminal victimization (including sexual assault) for people with disabilities is much higher than for people without disabilities. People with disabilities are often victimized repeatedly by the same offender. Caretakers, family members, or friends may be responsible for the sexual assault. In such cases, offenders may bring victims to the exam site, and jurisdictional and facility policies should be in place to provide guidance on how staff should screen for and handle situations that are threatening to patients or facility personnel.

 

• Respect victims’ wishes to have or not to have caretakers, family members, or friends present during the exam. Although these individuals may be accustomed to speaking on behalf of persons with disabilities, it is critical that they not influence the statements of victims during the exam process. If aid is required (e.g. from a language interpreter or mental health professional), those providing assistance should not be associated with victims.

 

•Follow exam facility and jurisdictional policy for assessing vulnerable adults’ ability to consent to the exam and evidence collection and involving protective services. Again, note that guardians could be offenders. (For a more detailed discussion on seeking informed consent of patients, including consent by victims from specific populations).

 

• Speak directly to victims with disabilities, even when interpreters, intermediaries, or guardians are present.

 

• Assess a victim’s level of ability and need for assistance during the exam process. Explain exam procedures to victims and ask what help they require, if any (e.g., people with physical disabilities may need assistance to get on and off the exam table or to assume positions necessary for the exam, or may need an alternative to the standard table). But, do not assume they will need special aid. Ask for permission before proceeding to help them (or touch them, handle a mobility or communication device, or

touch a service animal).

 

• Note that not all individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing understand sign language or can read lips. Not all blind persons can read Braille. Communication equipment that may be beneficial to victims with sensory disabilities include TTY machines, word boards, speech synthesizers, anatomically correct dolls, materials in alternative formats, and access to interpreter services. Responders should familiarize themselves with the basics of communicating with an individual using such devices. Let the individual specify the preferred method of communication. Be aware that victims with sensory disabilities may prefer communicating through an intermediary who is familiar with their patterns of speech.

 

• Recognize that individuals may have some degree of cognitive disability: mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, or stroke. Speak to victims in a clear and calm voice and ask very specific and concrete questions. Be exact when explaining what will happen during the exam process and why. Be aware that victims with cognitive disabilities may be easily distracted and have difficulty focusing. To reduce distractions, conduct the exam in an area that is void of bright lights and loud noises. It may also be helpful if examiners and others present in the exam room refrain from wearing uniforms with ornamental designs and jewelry.

 

• Keep in mind that victims with disabilities may be reluctant to report the crime or consent to the exam for a variety of reasons, including fear of not being believed, fear of getting in trouble, and fear of losing their independence. For example, they may have to enter a long-term care facility if their caretakers assaulted them or may need extended hospitalization to treat and allow injuries to heal. The perpetrator may also be their caregiver and the only person they rely on for daily living assistance.

 

• Recognize that it may be the first time victims with disabilities have an internal exam. The procedure should be explained in detail in language they can understand. They may have limited knowledge of reproductive health issues and not be able to describe what happened to them. They may not know how they feel about the incident or even identify that a crime was committed against them.

 

• Some victims with disabilities may want to talk about their perceptions of the role their disability might

have played in making them vulnerable to an assault. Listen to their concerns and what the experience was like for them. Assure them that it was not their fault they were sexually assaulted. If needed, encourage discussion in a counseling/advocacy setting on this issue as well as on what might help them feel safer in the future.

 

• Recognize that the exam may take longer to perform with victims with disabilities. Avoid rushing through

the exam—such action not only may distress victims, it can lead to missed evidence and information.

 

 

U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (2013). A national protocol for sexual assault medical forensic examinations adults/adolescents (2ndEd.). https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ovw/241903.pdf