What are some best practices for serving Deaf survivors of gender based violence?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

While limited research exists regarding the prevalence of gender based violence within the Deaf community, it is known that Deaf individuals experience violence at significant rates. Findings from a computerized American Sign Language survey suggest that deaf adults who use sign language experience notably higher rates of intimate partner violence than does the general population (Pollard, Sutter & Cerulli, 2013). Similarly, data from sexual assault service providers (both Deaf and hearing) suggests that sexual assault is a significant problem in the Deaf community, although many providers do not see Deaf clients presenting with sexual assault issues (Obinna, Krueger, Osterbaan, Sadusky & DeVore, 2006). This is because Deaf survivors experience profound isolation and lack of options in seeking help. Services are generally unavailable to this group in hearing agencies. Moreover, disclosure to formal support services about abuse may be hindered by the intimacy that exists in the Deaf community (Obinna et al., 2006).


There has been a significant movement in the United States to develop direct, culturally specific services for Deaf survivors of abuse. More than a dozen programs are currently operating across the country and many more are in development. However, since most communities do not have ready access to these programs, hearing advocates continue to have a significant role to play in offering culturally appropriate and linguistically accessible advocacy services to Deaf survivors. That said, effective interventions to address gender based violence within the Deaf community require, at the very least, ongoing training and education about Deaf culture, collaboration between the Deaf community and hearing allies, the development of appropriate policies and procedures, and the continued implementation of linguistically and culturally responsive services. Key recommendations for service providers working with Deaf survivors are highlighted below.

Challenge Audism: Service providers must commit to recognizing and rooting out audism and biases towards Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and signing people. Learning about oppression in the lives of Deaf individuals is a good starting point in the process of challenging audism.

Understand Deaf Culture: Deaf culture has its own values, norms, community institutions, and history that are important to understand and incorporate when serving Deaf survivors. “While not everyone who is deaf or hard of hearing identifies with Deaf culture, many members of the Deaf community do. Organizations must integrate knowledge of Deaf culture into and change their policies, practices, and attitudes to deliver culturally competent services that effectively meet the needs of Deaf survivors” (Accessing Safety Initiative, 2010).

Communicate Respectfully: When communicating with Deaf survivors, it is always appropriate to ask the deaf person how she or he wishes to communicate. American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary language of culturally Deaf people in America. However, not all Deaf individuals use ASL. As a best practice for providing linguistically and culturally appropriate services, information should be offered in the language best understood by the survivor. Attention to the etiquette, norms, and values present in the Deaf culture are also critical in establishing effective, respectful communication with Deaf survivors. While some behaviors may be considered rude in a group of hearing individuals, they may be actually quite acceptable within the Deaf community (for example, waving, tapping the shoulder, stamping on the floor, banging on the table, and turning the lights on and off to get someone’s attention). Resources are available to offer guidance around etiquette for interacting with deaf individuals.

Strive Towards Greater Accessibility: Understanding your responsibility as service providers to Deaf or hard of hearing populations establishes a foundation for accessibility. Creating an environment and a program that is truly welcoming to Deaf individuals requires solutions that exceed minimum expectations delineated in the Americans with Disabilities Act and other requirements. Assistive devices such as video phones, computers, and smart phones make communication with the outside world and with one another possible for Deaf persons. The importance of this type of communication accessibility cannot be overstated. However, accessibility goes beyond the use of assistive devices or other accommodations. Programmatic or attitudinal practices, such as maintaining strict 9-5 access to a video phone while providing 24/7 access to a regular phone, can be devastating for Deaf individuals. When Deaf survivors are expected to engage with service providers that do not promote accessibility because of their practices, the survivor may become further isolated and less likely to use those services. The NRCDV Access Initiative Page provides insights, resources and recommendations for organizations committing to greater accessibility.

By accessibility, we mean access in its broadest sense. It includes standards in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Amendments, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and state-level access requirements. Access also encompasses the development and use of policies and procedures that are trauma-informed. It is not just buildings and meeting spaces that need to be accessible. People have to remain accessible, too. A key aspect of access that will arise daily is the challenge as a provider of services to remain accessible—open and trauma-aware—during all interactions, especially ongoing relationships with organization participants. – (Wisconsin’s Violence Against Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women Project, 2011)

Use Qualified Interpreters: Most interpreters have not received training on domestic or sexual violence and therefore may be ill equipped to provide adequate services to abuse survivors. Partnering with interpreter service agencies and providing them with training on sexual and domestic violence is a practice that can benefit all parties involved. It is also important to understand that Deaf survivors are not responsible for payment of interpreters. This is a common misconception for survivors who may not seek services because they cannot afford an interpreter. Accommodations such as interpreters are the financial responsibility of the service provider when requested by a survivor or when need is known. When hiring interpreters for working with survivors, it is critical that service providers also be mindful of the smallness of the community and the possibility of the interpreter and perpetrator (and/or interpreter and victim) knowing one another. Having a well prepared Deaf advocate who has been thoroughly trained by a sexual assault and domestic violence program work with a Deaf survivor is the ideal situation. Additional recommendations for working with interpreters, if your agency does not have a Deaf advocate on staff, are offered in the Special Collection, Violence in the Lives of the Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

Build Collaborations: Trust and collaboration must be established and maintained between the Deaf community, domestic and sexual violence organizations, and other institutions and segments of society at large. To become effective allies in the prevention and intervention of gender based violence, it is critical that the Deaf community learns more about these issues, supports non-violence, commits to hold perpetrators accountable, and properly refers victims to expert, lifesaving help. In turn, it is crucial that hearing providers fully engage and collaborate with leaders in the Deaf community in order to provide services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate. For example, to adequately respond to the unique needs of Deaf survivors, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) has partnered with Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) to ensure Deaf advocates are available to respond through email, instant messenger, and video phone to Deaf callers reaching out to NDVH for help.

What steps is your organization taking towards meeting the unique needs of Deaf survivors gender based violence?