It’s March and National Disability Awareness Month. For 28 years, the U.S. has officially used this month to promote awareness, support, and opportunities for people with disabilities. As investigators, we should do our part to make interviews and the investigation process accessible. This includes people with disabilities, neurodiversity, and various disorders. Here are a few tips to help make the investigation process more accessible.
When scheduling interviews, let witnesses know that you would like to make the interview accessible. The very first step could be a simple footer at the bottom of all interview request emails (or all emails) that says you are willing to make accommodations. For example, a footer that reads: “We strive to make the investigation process inclusive and accessible to everyone, including persons with disabilities, neurodiversity, and/or other disorders. Please let us know if you need an accommodation to participate in the investigation process so we can try to provide the appropriate assistance.”
You may be thinking that you cannot afford to provide accommodations to witnesses. Not true. Some accommodations are not expensive but could make a big difference to many witnesses. For more expensive accommodations, before you decline to make the accommodation, explain the needed accommodation to your client. They may be willing to cover the expense.
Once you know that an accommodation is needed, discuss with the witness what kind of aid/assistance would be helpful. Please note, the witness may not want to disclose their condition to you. Disclosure is not necessary in order to accommodate. Moreover, it may be a surprisingly simple adjustment to your process. Here are some examples:
- For in-person interviews, for people with physical disabilities make sure the interview is at an accessible location (building, room, etc.). Also, make sure you ask them how you can assist them the day of the interview. They may need to have their aid (cane, service dog, etc.) within arm’s reach. For visionally impaired witnesses, some may want verbal cues or to be guided and others may not.
- Virtual platforms offer various accommodations including closed captioning, leaving/turning cameras off, and the comfort of interviewing in their own home with their personal aids.
- Extended interview times or breaking up the interview into smaller segments may be a reasonable accommodation for witnesses with various disabilities or neurodiversity.
- For hearing impairments, some people that use hearing aids have “hearing fatigue.” Therefore, long interviews may be difficult for them. Prescheduling shorter sessions over a few days could be an accommodation.
- Written questions versus a live interview could also be an accommodation. This may work especially well for a witness who has expertise knowledge or specific relevant information.
These are just some examples for investigators to consider in regard to accommodating witnesses. However, accommodations are not one size fits all. The key is open and honest communication. Let witnesses know that you want to accommodate, ask what they need from you but do not over promise expensive accommodations that you cannot afford. If you cannot offer the specific accommodation that the witness requested, tell them what you can provide including written questions, if appropriate. Additionally, ask if they already have an aid that they can use with some assistance from you. In some cases, your acknowledgment that you are aware of such needs will make them comfortable enough to participate with their own aids.
As investigators, we have a certain number of witnesses that never respond to our request for an interview. That’s normal. However, what if you are unknowingly eliminating witnesses because you do not mention your willingness to make the process accessible. One in four, 26%, of all Americans have some type of disability. Additionally, 2.21% of Americans are neurodiverse. Therefore, chances are you have encountered a witness that may have benefitted from an accommodation. As neutral investigators, we should seek to interview the most relevant witnesses. Some of those witnesses may require an accommodation.
 ““Neurodiversity” is a word used to explain the unique ways people’s brains work. While everyone’s brain develops similarly, no two brains function just alike. Being neurodivergent means having a brain that works differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. This may be differences in social preferences, ways of learning, ways of communicating and/or ways of perceiving the environment.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23154-neurodivergent#:~:text=%E2%80%9CNeurodiversity%E2%80%9D%20is%20a%20word%20used,average%20or%20%E2%80%9Cneurotypical%E2%80%9D%20person.