Successful Communication

A person with developmental disabilities is entitled to the full protection of the law by participating in the legal process on equal terms with others. This can mean that special accommodations must be made for communicating with the person about what has happened.


To prepare for effective communication, you must gauge the abilities of the victim and others involved who may need help. If you do not already know the abilities, you can look for clues in speech, behavior, and response to you. Clues may include limited vocabulary, impairment in speech, hearing, or vision, and difficulty in understanding questions or in answering questions about details or sequence.


People with developmental disabilities can comprehend more than they can express verbally. They often communicate in acts rather than words, but they react in ways common to all victims of sexual assault. They can be easily frustrated and frightened by first responders, or they can be easily influenced and overly anxious to please in answering questions.


It is your responsibility as the first responder to determine what is needed to successfully communicate with the person in an interview and to get the necessary help. Assistance may require a specific device or it may mean using translators, interpreters, signers or Assistive Technology. Confidentiality and informed consent must be explained and obtained.


Tips for Interviewing

Simply but completely explain to the person who may have been assaulted who you are and what your purpose is.


Let the person know that you understand nervousness and that it is not unusual.


Don’t talk down to the person and don’t assume he or she can’t understand you.


Don’t touch the person.


Maintain an accepting attitude.


Minimize distractions such as a radio or television.


Speak directly to the person who may have been assaulted.


Speak slowly.


Use simple language and vocabulary that the person can understand.


Keep sentences short and simple.


In giving instructions or explaining anything, break it down into small and simple components. Ask for concrete descriptions.


Use pictures, symbols, or actions to convey meaning.


Be patient; take time and allow time.



Baladerian, N.J., Heisler, C., & Hertica, M. (n.d.) Child abuse victims with disabilities: A curriculum for law enforcement first responders and child protective services frontline workers-participant manual. California: Child abuse and neglect disability outreach program of arc riverside. Retrieved from