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Criminal Justice Advocacy Program

A.W.A.R.E. for Criminal Defense Professionals

Guidelines for Working With Clients With IDD

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are at elevated risk for both sexual victimization and perpetration. Approximately 10% to 15% of all sexual offenses are committed by people with IDD. Deficits including lack of sex education, limited understanding of the social significance of sexual behavior, and histories of sexual abuse engender increased risk of problematic or criminal sexual expression.

Communication challenges and stigma surrounding disabilities compound these barriers, subjecting these individuals to greater risk of arrest, conviction, sentencing to prison, and then victimization in prison. 

The role of the defense attorney in these instances is pivotal.

That is why The Arc of NJ’s Criminal Justice Advocacy Program and Sexual Violence Prevention Project have created a comprehensive primer on advocating for the client with IDD. 

Our key word for working with clients with IDD: AWARE.


In spite of the requirements outlined in Title II of the ADA, the criminal justice system does not readily accommodate individuals with IDD. Such individuals frequently find themselves at a disadvantage due to issues like visual or auditory impairments, sensory difficulties, anxiety, and lack of knowledge. Addressing these barriers will enhance communication and lead to more efficient legal representation.

  • Use communication aids or an interpreter
  • Offer the client a support person or facilitator 
  • Increase font size on written documents
  • Provide an opportunity for the individual to see the courtroom and identify where each party will be positioned
  • Choose a comfortable meeting place with limited distractions and little noise
  • Consider having the client testify on videotape or remotely

Word choice

The manner in which legal principles are presented can adversely affect individuals with IDD who are facing legal proceedings. Misunderstanding Miranda rights or lacking knowledge of fundamental legal protections can result in imprisonment and permanent sex offender registration. It is imperative for defense lawyers to guarantee that their clients grasp legal matters, procedures, and terminology both prior to and throughout their involvement in the justice system. 

  • Avoid using legal jargon; assume the listener is not familiar with even the most common legal terms
  • Use concrete language; do not use terms or phrases with multiple meanings, such as “cut it out,” or sarcasm that can be misconstrued
  • Ask the individual to repeat information in their own words to ensure they understand

Attention to signs

Individuals with IDD are frequently subject to incorrect diagnoses or remain undiagnosed. Co-occurring conditions such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder are also prevalent and can obscure other disabilities. Additionally, individuals with IDD might feel self-conscious about or not fully comprehend their condition, leading them to conceal it. Nevertheless, specific indicators exist that can aid in recognizing a disability. Identification is crucial, as anyone suspecting issues related to competence, whether linked to IDD or not, is responsible for addressing competency as a concern and pursuing necessary evaluations.

  • Communication issues: limited vocabulary, speech impairment, difficulty answering questions, short attention span
  • Behavior: inappropriate demeanor, pliability, difficulty with directions, difficulty with simple tasks, repetitive motions or motor impairment
  • Interaction: eagerness to please, communication through others, mimicking, feigning greater understanding, over- or under-engagement


Given the challenges associated with identifying certain disabilities, it is essential to adhere to the principles of the “Access and Functional Needs” approach when engaging with new clients, unless it has been definitively established that they do not have a disability. Employed by first responders, this methodology promotes the idea that professionals who interact with the public should operate on the assumption that every individual they encounter may have specific requirements or limitations, regardless of their background.

  • Actively listen
  • Give praise and encouragement
  • Use a calm and even voice
  • Be patient; repeatedly check for understanding
  • Divide meetings into sections and short breaks to reduce fidgety behaviors


Providing environmental adjustments that consider sensitivity to stressors facilitates effective cooperation with clients with IDD. Given the prevalence of sensory processing disorder within the neurodiverse community, an excess of stimuli may lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, annoyed, or unable to focus. Additionally, pacing and presenting expectations of interactions can significantly mitigate the situation. It is important to both recognize that your client possesses distinct requirements and strive to accommodate them.

  • Upon meeting, address the individual in a way that is clear and unambiguous. Introduce yourself and then explain your role in an easy-to-understand way, such as: “I’m your attorney, which means I’m here to help you. Other people you talk to do not want to help you right now. Only talk to the other people when I am around.”
  • Allow for extra time for the individual with IDD to think about questions before responding
  • Use a trauma-informed approach; provide regular updates, allow involvement in decision-making, use terminology that aligns with the client’s experience