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Learning difficulties & disabilities in the justice system
Helen Arnold-Richardson and Professor Amanda Kirby say we must stop ignoring learning difficulties/disabilities in offenders.

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This is a guest post by Helen Arnold-Richardson and Professor Amanda Kirby of Do-It Profiler, an organisation specialising in helping people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities.


The prevalence of people with Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities (LDD)[1] in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) has been highlighted over the last decade.

Various publications including Unlocking Potential-A review of education in prison[2]  and The Bradley Report [3] discussed the difficulties of knowing the exact numbers of people with LDD in custody, with even less information regarding those on community sentences.  Both documents cited that 1 in 3 people who are in contact with CJS have an LDD and gave a greater emphasis on action not only for identification of offenders who have LDD, but also for those working with offenders having the skills to support at all stages within the CJS.

Why do people in the CJS get missed, mislabelled or misdiagnosed?

Some people may enter the CJS with a diagnosis for one LDD, but the reality is that LDD’s overlap, therefore challenges in other areas are not identified.  There are also many who have been missed due to their complex pathway and have not had their needs recognised or supported.  They may have:

  • Been a Looked After Child or Young Person (LACYP). They may have moved from school to school making a referral and follow-up harder to do despite evidence of high levels of learning difficulties;
  • Had parents with LDDs – so they were less aware that their challenges impacted on their family (intergenerational adversity);
  • Been excluded from school. There is a high level of undiagnosed LDD in this group, but there remains no mandatory screening for LDD at present;
  • Left school early or not attended school regularly and not been in a ‘system’ at all;
  • Not been recognised as needing to be diagnosed,g. come from social settings where their parents had similar patterns of difficulties but were never diagnosed. As a result, the parents don’t see that the challenges in their child as anything to be concerned about;
  • Come from another country where LDD is less well recognised;
  • Been Homeless and not had a GP to make a referral;
  • Had other reasons for symptoms which are not considered. There is increasing interest in the association between Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It can be difficult (especially if the question isn’t asked) to know whether attention problems are due to ADHD or to a head injury or potentially a combination of the two.

[1] LDD is one of many umbrella terms given to cover such conditions as: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Dyspraxia.

[2] Coates, S (2016) Unlocking Potential-A review of education in prison. London: Ministry of Justice

[3] The Rt Hon Lord Bradley. (2009). Lord Bradley’s Review of People with Mental Health Problems or Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Department of Health.

Diagram illustrating the complexity of a person's pathway

The negative impact of ignoring LDDs

The negative impact of having an LDD may mean that inside the prison gates, people may not understand instructions given which could lead to frustration and negative/violent behaviours.  Through the gate, that some offenders may not be able to use public transport to get to meetings or community payback. They may miss appointments due to not being able to plan.  They may react badly to a new situation or they may not fully understand what they must do to adhere to their community order.  If those working within the CJS knew that the person had these barriers, practical adjustments and strategies could be put in place to support the person in achieving their outcomes.

The need for whole person-centred screening and guidance for those working with offenders

The systems in place may preclude appropriate screening or assessments being made:

  • Paper- based systems may not be accessible for those who cannot read the questions, e.g. with low levels of literacy or for the 13% of people in the prison population where English is a second language (but there may not be a means of assessing their needs in their home language resulting in limited or little information about their prior educational experiences).
  • Questions relating to the ‘other’ factors may not be asked concurrently so conclusions may be biased by the data collected.
  • A lack of confidence and training by the non-specialist LDD staff to have a conversation with the offender if identified as having an LDD. There can also be a lack of knowledge to know what to do and how to provide support for the offender or make reasonable, practical adjustments 
  • A lack of tools in place to assist may prevent the process of screening happening. Or the tools may take too much time or be too confusing to administer. Therefore, missing key information on the rehabilitation barriers the offender may have.
  • Lack of pathways for onward referral- there may not be a system in place to know what to do if someone is identified with ADHD or Dyspraxia traits or how to make reasonable adjustments.

The benefits of screening offenders- using technology to help

The reality is that even though around 1 in 3 offenders may have an LDD there is a need to understand all barriers and strengths to support their rehabilitation and move towards developing their skills and gaining meaningful employment.

This requires a whole person approach- therefore screening in all areas so as not to miss key information about the person that is needed to support conversations, to prepare reports, to plan their intervention or understand why they are not adhering to, for example, Prison or Probation rules.

One tool that is currently used with offenders in custody and through the gate across the UK is the Do-IT Profiler system which provides:

  • A whole person approach to identifying the strengths and challenges for the offender through a modular based system completed online.
  • Quick, consistent screening for LDD traits and provides assessment tools and resources relating to literacy, numeracy, wellbeing and training for work skills.
  • The integration and analysis of the data through the management information platform which provides instant person-centred feedback for the individual, as well as guidance for staff and reports.

The use of such a system could benefit offenders by providing:

  1. Those working with offenders training and guidance on how to recognise someone has a LDD and the means to make practical adjustments to help that person whilst in custody, though the gate and on community orders.
  2. A system that is accessible for all, both staff[1] and offenders, e.g. built in coloured overlays and voiced questions and answers, written material available in different formats, and easy read materials as options.
  3. Consistent, systematic and time efficient approaches using evidence- based tools that screen and capture information on the strengths and barriers of the offender, therefore providing more information to support the offender in achieving their outcomes.

[1] 1 in 8 of employees have an LDD, therefore accessibility for staff needs to be considered also.

For more information about Do-IT Profiler, please visit or contact

The video below will give you an excellent overview of Do-IT Profiler’s work. Any difficulties in viewing it, click here.

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One Response

  1. I was one of the people trying to highlight these issues from around 2000 – when I realised I am dyspraxic –

    there was a woman who produced a handbook for sentencers long ago – she is part of an online group of mostly professionals

    Melanie Jameson

    It has been like banging one’s head against a brick wall. In 2001/2 at the Napo Disability Conference I had a conversation with the then Chief of the National Probation Service (markI) Eithne Wallis – who acknowledged that provison for what has come to be known as people with a neuro diversity/disabillity was inadequate – but NPS did not have the resources to do anything about it immediately but she would take the issue forward in the next year – I was retired in 2003 (after 30 years) because I could not get the reasonable adjustments I needed in the era of rapidly increasing Information Technonology and reduced administration officers within the (then) Probation Areas.

    Amanda Kirby & others are now doing excellent work – I was introduced to learning about dyspraxia in 1999 – when she was interviewed on radio and I subsequently bought her first book – now updated.

    I am certain large numbers of convicts are still being failed and a good few criminal justice practitioners because understanding and assessment is so poor.

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