People with disabilities have always had a voice. We’re just teaching the world different ways to listen.
A disability victim services agency

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Nothing About Us Without Us: Creating the Adult Advocacy Centers

September 8, 2022 / Representation

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By AACs Executive Director Katherine Yoder, MS, CFI

I learned early on that my mind operates differently than most people and, eventually, I got some labels to condense that difference into two words: autism and anxiety. But my disabilities are a strength, not a limitation. They help me to look at people and problems with empathy and creativity, interact directly with survivors and victims from a place of authenticity, and understand that society cannot speak for people with disabilities.

I have spent most of my career investigating abuse, neglect and other crimes committed in both community and facility settings, and I have rarely worked with other professionals who have publicly claimed a disability. This lack of disability representation has led to systems that weren’t made for disabled people and our needs. In the victim services and criminal justice systems, disabled survivors have long been an afterthought. How do I know this? Disabled people are four times more likely to be victimized than non-disabled people, and this statistic has not improved since the government started collecting data in 1988.

I came to realize that working inside those broken systems under non-disabled leadership wasn’t the way to make change. We needed a new approach, led by experts with disabilities, if we wanted to reshape the systems to represent us. We have the knowledge, ideas and solutions that come out of our education and lived experiences.

So, in 2019, I founded the Adult Advocacy Centers. In just three years, we have:

  • Created the only ongoing series of forensic interview protocols for crime victims with disabilities, including those who do not traditionally use speech as a method of communication;
  • Trained hundreds of professionals to use these protocols in their work, including the first Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) and the first American Sign Language-speaking forensic interviewer;
  • Entered into multi-year Memorandums of Understanding with law enforcement departments and investigative agencies in Ohio and throughout the nation to provide forensic interviewing services for cases involving adult crime victims with disabilities – particularly those who do not traditionally use speech as a method of communication;
  • Conducted forensic interviews at the invitation of Child Advocacy Centers across the country for complex cases involving a child with a disability;
  • Published dozens of guidebooks, booklets and other publications in collaboration with our colleagues in the fields of disability, criminal justice and victim services;
  • Presented in-person and virtually at conferences around the world about our revolutionary work; and
  • Received the Ohio Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Award in 2021 and the Ohio Attorney General’s Promising Practice Award in 2022.

The truth is that people with disabilities are not inherently more vulnerable than people without disabilities. Our vulnerability is created by the systems, silos and services that were designed without our input. For the statistics to improve, we must embrace a revitalization of the commitments born out of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehab Act. We must also find our place in other legislative landmarks, such as the 1968 Safe Streets Act. The fact is that none of us live our lives in silos or maneuver in just one system; we are fluid and intersectional. Unfortunately, our systems and funding do not currently reflect that diversity. It’s time to change that.

Within disability culture, if something doesn’t work, you adapt it. If something is inaccessible, you make it accessible. If something needs to be altered to provide equity, you accommodate. Victims of crime with disabilities do not fit neatly into a box, a system, a label or a single funding stream. By developing the Adult Advocacy Centers, we are proactively preparing for a new era by disrupting the fields of victim rights, disability silos and criminal justice. Our goal is to achieve a level of equity that should exist for all victims of crime, one case at a time.