January 01, 2014

Interviewing Persons with Disabilities

Julie Kenniston

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A forensic interview is a conversation between two people where one person is seeking information to assist a team in making a decision about a report of maltreatment. A group of people who require communicative sensitivity are those with a developmental or other disability. 

People with disabilities can be great witnesses. “Practitioners will need to tailor the interviewing approach to the child’s specific disability. Advance planning and efforts to meet the needs of each child will go a long way in making the interview comfortable for the child and productive for the case...Many simple steps can easily be incorporated into interviews that accommodate differences in how children with disabilities communicate” 

Preparing for the Interview

Every child brings his own abilities into the interview. Interviewers should gather as much information as possible when preparing to make accommodations that maximize the child’s ability to communicate and minimize the impact of the interview. 

Minimizing impact involves assessing the child’s safety. Children with disabilities are highly vulnerable and dependent on caregivers just like their peers without disabilities. Often children will deny or recant when they feel unsafe. Interviewers should be aware of this dynamic and discuss with child protective services the potential barriers to disclosure.

Multidisciplinary teams should make decisions after learning about the child’s functioning, including things that enhance and hinder the child’s ability to communicate. Choose a time that best suits the child. Create an interview space that respects the child’s unique needs. This might include room arrangement, décor and lighting, facilitated communication, interpreters, 

manipulatives or other accommodations. These interviews are not “one size fits all.” Remember that young children and those with developmental disabilities are literal and concrete. This means they are better at answering who, what, and where than they are at answering when, how many times, how long, and why.

Concrete vs. Abstract

Interviewers balance the art and science of interviewing while tending to the needs of the interviewee. The principles of language discussed in this book apply to people whose cognitive functioning is that of a young child. 

Concrete people need concrete questions. The data necessary in an investigation (who, what, where, when, how and why) are a mixture of concrete and abstract terms. You can touch a who and interact with a who (like your Aunt Sally). You can see or hear or interact with a what (like a table or a baseball game). You can smell and experience a where (like a bedroom or a festival). These are concrete concepts. Who, what and where are solid pieces of data and can be gathered. 

Abstract terms are more difficult. You can’t touch yesterday or August 8th (a when piece of data). Twenty minutes and 100 times are equally as elusive (how long and how many times). Giving the motivation of someone else is also complicated (“Why did he come into your room?”). These are difficult concepts for concrete people but they are still crucial in investigations. 


One way to maximize information from individuals with developmental disabilities is to focus on literal, concrete concepts. Who, what and where can give you when data. An individual who describes all the people present, what was happening at the time, and the place where abuse occurred might provide time markers for investigators to establish when the event happened.


How questions require a different strategy. “How long” is a difficult question for high functioning adults, let alone children and those with developmental disabilities who have not mastered abstract concepts. “How many times” is quite important in child abuse and witnessing violence cases. It should be noted that chronic abuse is difficult to quantify.

Can you give the number of times you have ridden a bike? Most people cannot. For some children, abuse and violence is as frequent as you riding your bike. It would be impossible to give an accurate number. Interviewers should focus on individual episodes or events that the child can remember and narrate

Avoiding Miscommunication

Interviewers can minimize miscommunication by focusing on the concrete questions that support the interviewee’s cognitive ability. By asking a lot of narrative questions around who was there (“Tell me all about the people”), the interviewer can get information that could possibly corroborate witness statements. This includes not only the people who witnessed the event but also people who know about the event.

Copyright May 2013 by the American Bar Association. For complete text, including citations, see Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective, Anne Graffam Walker, Ph.D., 3rd Edition, May 2013. $30, PC 34900008, ISBN: 978-1-62722-203-7 \