I found out about language impairments almost by accident.  I was talking with staff at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, Wisconsin and they happened to mention that the adolescents they worked with (ages 13-19, adjudicated delinquent and committed to juvenile corrections) had expressive and receptive language skills that ranged from a high of “below average” all the way down the first percentile – with about a quarter of the kids scoring in this rock bottom range.   Which led me to ask, “what’s up with that?”

Because I work at a law school I have had the luxury of rooting around in extensive databases and figuring out what’s up with that.  And what’s up with that is startling.  Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Language impairment –a failure to fully develop competency in language and language use– is notably prevalent among the populations public defenders routinely represent: individuals with ADHD and/or learning disabilities, people who had been labeled “behavior problems” in school, victims of abuse and neglect, and those raised in extreme poverty.
  • Underdeveloped language ability can have life-long effects not only on communication, but behavior, learning, knowledge, emotional development, mental health, self-control, and social skills. 
  • An individual with a language impairment is twice as likely to be arrested as one without.   
  • Within correctional institutions (both adult and juvenile) language impairments occur at rates four to seven times that of the non-incarcerated population.

The legal implications of language impairments are painfully obvious, from competency to stand trial, to Miranda, to ability to tell one’s own story, to ability to comply with rules of supervision. Which led me to ask another question: “why don’t we in the legal system know about this?”  Ultimately I ended up writing two articles (the law school thing again) that placed language impairment research in the context of our clients’ painful journeys through the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Links to both articles are below.

On June 11, 2014 at 1 p.m. Eastern, I will be conducting a live webinar on this topic for NAPD.  For registration information go to this link.   For NAPD members, the recording of this webinar will be available on www.mygideon.org. 

This webinar is an introduction to language impairments, along with a discussion of potential legal implications, and suggestions for defense attorneys on how and when to raise the issue, and how to work with clients with language impairments.  I’ve named this webinar “Houston in the blind” because that is so often what it is like, not only for linguistically impaired clients, but for their lawyers as well.  Urban Dictionary describes “Houston in the blind” this way:  “It's used when the person sending the transmission wishes to indicate that they're not receiving a response, but has no way of knowing whether that's because nobody's receiving the transmission, or because there's a fault which means any responses aren't reaching them.” That pretty much sums it up.

Article Links:

Breakdown in the Language Zone: The Prevalence of Language Impairments Among Juvenile and Adult Offenders and Why It Matters, 15 UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy 37 (2011


‘He got in my face so I shot him’: How Defendants’ Language Impairments Impair Attorney-Client Relationships, 17 CUNY Law Review (forthcoming 2014),