How Research Can Improve Disability Access in the Legal System

New report and expert panel demonstrate the need to focus research and implementation on people with lived experiences

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How Research Can Improve Disability Access in the Legal System
A dark wooden desk overlooks an empty courtroom decorated with several painted portraits.
Mark Gilliland for The Pew Charitable Trusts

More than a quarter of U.S. adults live with a disability, but little is known about their experiences with the legal system. Strong data and research on the involvement of people with disabilities with the justice system is a critical step toward inclusion efforts that ensure everyone receives equitable access and treatment.

The Pew Charitable Trusts works to improve access to justice for people with disabilities and recently partnered with the RAND Corporation, a research organization, to learn more about the experiences people with disabilities have with the legal system and to identify research and policy gaps. On November 8, RAND shared findings from their report during a presentation and panel discussion, Disability and the Legal System: A Proposed Agenda for Future Research, at Pew’s D.C. offices. (A recording of the event is available to view on demand.)

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RAND’s report, which included a review of current literature and publications as well as interviews with people who work in the legal system and those who interact with it, revealed several opportunities to strengthen research related to disability access and the legal system.

The researchers considered a variety of disabilities—physical, sensory, communication, intellectual, developmental, and cognitive impairments—and excluded articles solely focused on mental health, which is more represented in research. Although the literature review revealed a heavy emphasis on capital punishment/death penalty cases involving individuals with intellectual disabilities, information on how people with sensory or mobility impairments interact with the legal system was less readily available.

Also scarce was information on disability access in civil legal settings. Despite the fact that child guardianship and debt cases—both of which can be life-altering—are heard in civil courts, 90% of the sources RAND reviewed focused on criminal matters.

Similarly, the researchers found very few articles exploring the intersection of disability and race, ethnicity, age, and other classifications. However, interview subjects shared that racism and bias in the legal system compound the experiences of people with disabilities who also belong to other historically marginalized groups.

The research team identified priorities to guide future inquiries around disability access, such as increasing focus on people with disabilities navigating the civil legal system, clarifying definitions and terminology around disabilities, and putting the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of research.

Following the presentation, Stephanie Brooks Holliday of RAND moderated a panel of disability justice researchers, advocates, and system practitioners. The panel included Leigh Ann McKingsley from The Arc, the largest community-based organization in the U.S. serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, where she is senior director of Criminal Justice Initiatives; Judge David Whedbee of the King County (Washington) Superior Court; and Dr. Gabriel Lomas, professor at Gallaudet University and co-editor of the book “Deaf People in the Criminal Justice System.” They shared thoughts on the research and how the legal system can improve access for people with disabilities.

The panel discussed ways to make the research accessible and readily available to advocates, service providers, policymakers, and court practitioners. “I’ve been working in this field for a long time now, and I feel like elevating the research and putting it in front of policymakers is always the place where there is change,” said Lomas. “When we conduct research and publish it in journals, sometimes it doesn’t get the highlight it needs, so Pew has elevated this.”

Judge Whedbee added that synthesizing information for courts is a key element in translating research into policy change. “From the perspective of being a judge right now and having presented to judges across Washington about access issues, judges really want to help and do the right thing, but they have so much information that they need to be on top of at any given moment during the day that they need practices that are very distilled.”

The group also talked about the importance of involving people with disabilities in every aspect of access to justice work, particularly in research. “We live in an ableist society,” said Lomas. “People without disabilities are often at the table, but it’s our responsibility to include people with disabilities on research teams.”

Further thoughts on how the process should move forward were added by McKingsley. "When we make assumptions about what we think people need, we miss key points of what we need to be hearing and acting on," she said. “We’re starting any work that we do from the perspective of someone with lived experience."

Sarah Godfrey and Darcy White are senior officers and April Rodriguez is an associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ courts and communities project.

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