Make Victim Services Accessible
The pilot sites made themselves more accessible because they were committed to serving all survivors of crime in their communities. Organizations that require more incentive should heed the following: It is illegal to discriminate against persons with disabilities in the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require that the same full range of services be available to all people in the most integrated setting, regardless of any physical, sensory, cognitive, psychiatric, or other disability. All service providers, regardless of agency size, are required to provide accessible services to persons with disabilities.
There are three types of accessibility, and they are all intertwined:
The Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio’s advice: Address staff attitudes first about working with persons with disabilities. Provide training and space for discussion to address your staff’s fears and concerns. Agencies tend to look at physical accessibility first because it is tangible and easier to address.
Physical accessibility is important. A welcoming staff, however, is critical.
The least tangible but most important kind of accessibility is making crime victims with disabilities feel welcomed. Increasing your staff’s attitudinal accessibility involves training and discussions to increase staff buy-in.
All three pilot sites spent a fair amount of time addressing their staff’s fears and training them to better work with persons with a variety of disabilities and people who are Deaf. For staff members who worked directly on this project, a major internal shift came from conducting the focus groups. Listening to persons with disabilities and those who are Deaf talk frankly brought immediate clarity to staff about the need to improve their services to this population.
Opening the minds of other staff who were not part of the focus groups took training, discussions, patience, and a clear directive from management that providing services to crime victims with disabilities was an organizational priority. In the end, the best way to dispel anyone’s fears about working with this population is simply to have those individuals work with survivors with disabilities and Deaf survivors. After working through this project, the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio (SARNCO) reported that its staff are no longer “shy, scared, or ignorant of the needs of survivors with disabilities. Confidence was missing before.” Family Crisis Services (FCS) reports that staff now have an attitude of “how can we make this work,” rather than the previous attitude of “this isn’t going to work.”
Even with this level of improvement, attitudinal accessibility can never be checked off a to-do list as complete. Stretching and learning to serve diverse populations is the work of a lifetime.
Attitudinal access has to happen from the top down. If managers have a negative attitude about serving any population, no changes will be made, or any changes that are made will likely be ineffective.
Other ways to address staff attitudes follow:
- Hire staff and recruit volunteers with disabilities.
- Fill vacant direct service positions with staff committed to serving abuse survivors with disabilities.
- Bring in crime victims with disabilities and Deaf crime victims to train staff.
- Train agency staff and volunteers about disability issues.
- Expand board membership to include persons with disabilities.
Physical accessibility is the most tangible concept. It means making facilities usable for persons with all types of disabilities. Often, when people think about physical accessibility, they think about making a building accessible to people who use wheelchairs. In fact, all agencies should be physically accessible at this point to comply with ADA regulations. (See the Glossary for an ADA definition.)
Wheelchair accessibility is important, but it is by no means the beginning and end of physical accessibility. The pilot sites learned to go beyond ADA regulations and to consider the spirit of the law, which is to do whatever needs to be done on an individual basis to make services work for every person. Consider the great variety of disabilities and how they affect people and then consider your building and your services.
To make your building more accessible—
- Widen doorways and add ramps for people who use wheelchairs.
- Remove clutter in hallways for people who are blind or who use walkers or canes.
- Add flashing fire alarms for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
- Avoid area rugs or bathmats; they can slip or otherwise trip someone using crutches, a walker, or a cane.
- Provide accessible reading materials. This may mean developing brochures that can be read by someone with a third-grade reading level (which will make it easier for persons with intellectual disabilities and people for whom English is a second language, such as many people who are Deaf). It also may mean having materials available in large print or Braille.
- Put bright, reflective tape on stairs to make them more visible to people with low vision.
- Have a lower counter available where people using wheelchairs can be greeted by a receptionist, fill out paperwork, and so forth.
FCS improved its accessibility by moving into a new shelter that included an elevator, lower door handles that can be opened with a closed fist, three bedrooms, an accessible shower on the first floor, and a more open floor plan.
Programmatic accessibility means looking at how rules, policies, and practices may inadvertently keep persons with disabilities from receiving services. FCS adopted a policy that allows personal care attendants, service dogs, and therapy pets in its shelters; changed its intake form to clarify its intention to “screen all people in” for services rather than screening them out; and changed the format of staff meetings to include regular discussions about working with abuse survivors with disabilities. Other recommended changes include developing the following:
- An ADA policy.
- A clear policy statement that eligibility for services and termination from services will be nondiscriminatory, will comply with the ADA, and will not be based on disability.
- A policy to provide American Sign Language (ASL) for Deaf clients or other language interpreters for clients with limited English proficiency.
- A policy not to include diagnoses in consumer or client files.
- A policy not to use restraint or seclusion as a method of behavioral management of clients.
- A policy allowing service animals.
- Mental health policy statements that clearly indicate that unaddressed mental health issues are not a reason to consider a person inappropriate for services or to terminate services.
- A practice of making all materials more accessible to persons with disabilities and those who are Deaf, including open captioning on audiovisual materials.