02/02/2014 02:03 EST | Updated 04/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Group for those with intellectual disabilities want policy changes

HALIFAX - A Nova Scotia group that speaks for people with intellectual disabilities says although it has been gaining public support, it wants more commitments from federal and provincial leaders to implement policy changes in the justice system.

About 40 people held signs and tied red ribbons around their arms as they marched to Halifax provincial court in the city's downtown Sunday afternoon. It was one of eight protests happening across the province as part of the group's push to stop the criminalization of people with special needs.

Nichele Benn, a 26-year-old Nova Scotia woman with an intellectual disability, was recently charged with assault and assault with a weapon after she was accused of biting and striking a staff member at a care facility in Halifax.

Yvette Cherry, a rally organizer, said cases like Benn's shouldn't be before the courts because the behaviour challenges of those with intellectual disabilities shouldn't be considered criminal.

"These are individuals who are the mental age of a child, 12 or younger," said Cherry, whose 17-year-old son has an intellectual disability.

"Our criminal code protects children from being dealt with in the criminal justice system. We need to amend that code so it protects our other vulnerable persons who may be in an adult body but have the cognitive skills of a child."

The group is calling on federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil to look at amending the criminal code to ensure there are protections in place for people with intellectual disabilities.

Benn's family recently met with McNeil. Although no commitments were made, McNeil said the province's Community Services Department would follow up with them.

Devin Way, a 39-year-old man who says he has intellectual and physical disabilities, said the challenges that come with having special needs are complex and those people shouldn't be held accountable in the same way as someone without an intellectual disability.

"Your thought process may be able to hold onto a complete day of conversation, and while some of us can hold onto that conversation, there's some... who are going to forget right after the conversation done," he said while walking down Barrington Street.

"I have to push the limits all the time."

Police allege Benn assaulted an employee at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre on Dec. 12. Her case is scheduled to return to Dartmouth provincial court on Feb. 24.

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