Q: What happens when you’re deaf and being abused by a partner? I have a deaf friend and I think her boyfriend, who is not deaf, is mean to her, maybe even violent, but I’m not sure how to intervene, or even if I should. How is abuse different for the deaf? – Kate
Kate, thank you for wanting to help your friend. You’re right to suspect that domestic violence is different for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. For starters, it’s more prevalent. One study showed deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are 1.5 times more likely to be abused in an intimate partner relationship. This includes not only physical abuse but also sexual assault and psychological abuse.
I talked to Beca Bailey, community engagement liaison for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, for some input on your question. Bailey is deaf and uses American sign language (ASL) to communicate. She says the tactics abusers use, especially those who are “hearing privileged” vary from typical abuse tactics. You may have noticed some of these being used by your friend’s partner.
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For starters, an abusive partner may ridicule or make fun of their deaf partner, mock them for their use of sign language, or call them names like “dumb” for using sign language.
Unlike shouting and yelling that can happen in a hearing relationship where abuse is present, an abuser might try to intimidate a deaf survivor by signing very close to her face, or by pounding on a table or stomping on the floor to startle them.
An abuser might take away a deaf survivor’s means to communicate—her phone or computer, or disconnect the Wi-Fi, in order to isolate that person. An abuser might not let the survivor know when people are talking to her or trying to get in touch with her.
Getting Help Is Harder
If your friend wanted to get help, there are some unique barriers that could be standing in her way. A hearing abuser might utilize control by taking over conversations when the deaf partner is talking to someone who is hearing. This includes talking to police, if they’re called in response to domestic violence. Bailey says that rarely are licensed sign language interpreters readily available within a police department. It often takes an hour or more for one to arrive on scene. In that time, the hearing abuser can build comradery with the police or make a statement on behalf of the survivor, putting the survivor at a disadvantage to getting help.
There’s also a similar barrier to the deaf community as there is with survivors in small towns. Explains Bailey, “It’s hard to leave an abusive partner because the [deaf] community is so small. Everyone knows everyone and we’re all closely connected in one way or another. If we hear something happening with someone’s partner, word gets out there and it can be an unsafe situation.”
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And then there’s the question of where a deaf or hard-of-hearing survivor might go once she or he escapes abuse.
“Many survivors don’t want to leave their home, where they can sign, and go to a shelter where they’re isolated,” says Bailey. In the cases of shelters that do employ or have access to individuals who can use sign language, Bailey says it’s rare they’re fluent. In some instances, she warns, staff who sign are often used to “interpret” for deaf participants when, she says, “Shelters should hire qualified and state-licensed interpreters per the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Bailey is hoping that is changing though. Groups like hers are working with local domestic violence organizations to make shelters and other resources more accessible for the deaf by providing training and education.
“It’s so important domestic violence organizations and shelters be accessible [to the deaf] and set aside funds to purchase assistive technology and interpretive services. The barrier here is communication,” says Bailey. She adds that not just anyone with a basic knowledge of ASL is necessarily qualified, either. To talk to survivors, shelters should seek out mental health-trained or trauma-informed interpreters in order not to re-traumatize survivors.
What You Can Do
On to your question of what you can do to help, Kate. First, you may want to watch our latest video, “ I Know Someone Who Is Being Abused, What Should I Do?” It outlines some things you can say and do, and, conversely, some things you shouldn’t, when helping a friend who’s with an abusive partner.
You want to share your concerns with your friend but make sure you schedule a time to do so when she can get away from her partner and when there is someone there who you trust that can translate for you if you aren’t fluent in ASL. Tell your friend what you’ve noticed and that you just want to make sure she’s safe. Avoid telling her what she should do, as in, “You need to leave!” if she discloses abuse. Even if it’s coming from a place of concern, this kind of statement can trigger feelings of being controlled, the same as what an abuser might do.
Next, you might provide her with some resources. She may not be aware of the Deaf Power and Control Wheel that outlines the cycle of violence abuse can take with a deaf or hard-of-hearing individual. Encourage her to reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate – there are ways to do this through videophone (VP), TTY, online chatting, texting, instant messenger or email.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers all of these options for communicating. Their VP number is 1-855-812-1001 and TTY number is 800-787-3224.
- Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services also offers a national hotline with videophone capability at 855-812-1001. Or, your friend can email them from a secure computer the abuser cannot access at firstname.lastname@example.org. Deaf advocates are on duty 24 hours a day to answer calls and emails. Advocates are also available through their online chat services on Instant Messenger (DeafHotline), every day from 7 a.m.-2 a.m. CST.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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