What inspired me to become an intermediary – Andrew’s story

As part of a new blog post series, Andrew tells us what inspired him to move across from working as a speech and language therapist at an acute brain injuries unit to become a Court Appointed Intermediary.

So, imagine you are accused of something. You can’t understand what. You don’t know why, and every time you try to explain yourself things just seem to get worse. People dressed in suits saying words you don’t know.

Why am I starting this post by making you think of a Kafkaesque nightmare? Because, if you have communication impairments, sometimes those nightmares can become reality.

My background is in Speech and Language Therapy, I qualified several years ago and spent three and a half years working with adults with communication impairments. Part of this time was spent working on an acute neurological rehabilitation unit with people who suffered from severe impairments.

Hidden disabilities

Unfortunately, a sad truth of brain injuries is that a fair amount of the ways you end up in hospital, may also put you in jail. Fights, road traffic accidents and all other sorts of weird and creative ways of hurting your head, often mean the police need to speak to you.

Now this can make things tricky, because the police have a job to do. If they can see the person they need to speak to is sat up and talking, they may assume they can ask them questions. Unfortunately, that isn’t how communication issues work, they are deeper and often not initially visible. Being able to say words is a key part of communication, but it doesn’t mean that someone’s communication is unimpaired.

Every day at work in the unit, I could see the impact of a lack of awareness of communication impairments. Often in life, the more serious something is, the more complex the language becomes. It is true in hospitals, and it is true in the legal system. In hospitals there are specialists there to support vulnerable people who are making difficult decisions. I wondered what happened to these people in my unit when they left the hospital.

Over the next year or so these questions lingered at the back of my mind. Occasionally I would read a study suggesting that language impairments were high in the young offenders or prison populations, and I would wonder how these people navigated the legal system as defendants.

Then while looking through the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy’s website, I discovered Communicourt and realised it was something I wanted to be a part of. The aim of the organisation is to raise awareness of the impact of communication impairments on decision making, understanding choices, explaining wishes and making fully informed decisions in the legal system.

Being able to say words is a key part of communication, but it doesn’t mean that someone’s communication is unimpaired.

Total communication

By using the speech and language approach of providing a “total communication” environment, Intermediaries are able to provide person-centred support. This means making simple changes to our communication and environment so that we can improve interaction and understanding. This can include making sure we use language tailored to the level someone can understand, and thinking about how the lighting or background noise will affect them. Paying attention to body language and how visuals and pictures might aid communication.  We can then make recommendations to the court on the best environment to minimise someone’s anxiety, or assist legal professionals in the best way to phrase questions.

So now I know what happens to these individuals who are facing court proceedings as a defendant. They are supported by a compassionate and dedicated team of Intermediaries. Our aims are to increase understanding and facilitate choice. We break down information into ‘chunks’ that the vulnerable person can understand, and this in turn helps them to make informed decisions and not become overwhelmed.

In short, we help vulnerable people make informed decisions and access the justice system in a way that they wouldn’t be able to without the support of an intermediary. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?