The first American school to teach American Sign Language (ASL) was the Hartford-based Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in 1817 (renamed the American School for the Deaf). While the focus on educating persons with disabilities was groundbreaking at the time, it is clear from the institution’s name alone that there was an implicit, audist prejudice in its perception and approach to its students. Audism, the preferential treatment and bias towards hearing people over Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) people, has informed how the hearing population has perceived the Deaf/HoH community for centuries. The foundation of audism, that Deaf/HoH people are less intelligent or competent than their hearing counterparts, persists to this day and manifests itself in a variety of forms.
Society's general lack of exposure to the Deaf/HoH community due to minimal media representation further exacerbates these attitudes and allows misconceptions to fester. Moreover, lack of awareness of this community often results in an insufficient offering of any services, instruction, communication, or consideration relating to them at all in the public sphere and predominantly hearing spaces.
With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, people across the disability community finally gained crucial legal protections that prohibit discrimination based upon disability and require businesses and schools to provide accommodations if necessary. This was a tremendous stride in civil rights, yet over 30 years later there is still work to be done.
Within the sexual violence advocacy and services space, there are still audist structures, barriers, and attitudes in place. In honor of Deaf Awareness Month, we seek to identify those areas that still need improvement. We’re raising awareness on these issues as a means to encourage other advocates, organizations, and community partners to create more equitable spaces for all hearing, Hard-of-Hearing, and non-hearing sexual assault survivors.
Abuse Tactics Against Deaf/HoH People
Service providers, advocates, and community partners are aware of the prominent forms of abuse in our society. However, for Deaf/HoH people, there are culturally specific forms of abuse targeted at them with the intent of further isolating them from their loved ones and/or community resources. Examples of this type of abuse include destruction of video phones/video-based communication technology, physical violence towards one’s hands, physical violence towards one’s eyes, or demeaning them for their disability. All forms of abuse are done with the intent of instilling and maintaining a toxic power dynamic, and it is up to all who work with Deaf/HoH survivors to be aware of all the ways this can be manifested against the people of this community.
By law, schools, and organizations must provide interpreters if requested. Yet, many Deaf/HoH survivors face obstacles gaining access to them. Often, these survivors are compelled to communicate by other means to accommodate the hearing party, rather than the other way around. Due to ASL having its own grammatical context, it is incorrect to make the presumption that a Deaf/HoH person has the English literacy to communicate through passing notes. Furthermore, the presumption that all Deaf/HoH people are capable of lip-reading accurately results in an insufficient exchange in information. As the Vera Institute of Justice notes, “It is difficult to exchange information in a person’s non-native language in the best circumstances, and it becomes even more difficult if that person has experienced trauma, is in crisis, or if the information being conveyed is complex—all of which apply to Deaf survivors.”
ASL interpreters may also lack the cultural and educational competencies to accurately relay survivor messages. Culturally, the ASL interpreting world is largely homogenous as nine out of 10 interpreters are White women. Due to the United States’ history of segregated schools, white and non-white signers learned in separate spaces, creating dialects like Black ASL that often get misunderstood or misrepresented by White signers. Educationally, ASL interpreters rarely go through trainings and programs that surround this type of work. The Vera Institute of Justice further notes that few interpreters have, “training [that] covers vocabulary specific to domestic and sexual violence, trauma and communication, ethics, safety planning, and self-care.” It is also difficult to secure interpreters on a short notice during an emergency situation, which is why it is imperative to have preexisting relationships with interpreters to expedite the time it would take an interpreter to arrive.
By having a thorough understanding of the legal and ethical obligation to provide ASL interpretation services as necessary, while also reaching out to local interpreters to ensure they are equipped to handle the responsibility of translating for this space, Deaf/HoH survivors will be better able to engage in the self-advocacy they so desperately deserve.
Many hearing individuals were taught, in case of emergency, to dial an emergency hotline to receive immediate service. For Deaf/HoH individuals, it is often harder to utilize this service. Some hotlines incorporate TTYs (teletypewriters), in which the person in distress can type out their situation, but this communication is time-consuming and ineffective for those in this community in crisis. TTYs are also becoming out of fashion, with more young people using technology like videophones to relay their messages. The Vera Institute states that, “Having a call relayed is also an option for Deaf individuals, but most law enforcement and victim services agencies are not prepared to receive relay calls (or TTY calls) and Deaf survivors commonly report being hung up on or never having their call answered at all.” Going forward, hotlines need to have more accessible technology as well as representatives who have adequate training to deal with survivors in these circumstances.
Law enforcement officials spearhead the criminal investigation associated with an assault. While engaging with survivors in the Deaf/HoH community, misconceptions held by those officials have led to inaccurate reporting and case handling. Mecklenburg County Community Support Services notes that hearing abusers may intentionally misinterpret their partners to manipulate the investigation process. This may be the result of the audist deference to a hearing person’s narrative as opposed to a Deaf person’s or the negligence to provide an on-site interpreter. Law enforcement also has a history of perceiving the facial expression and gestures within American Sign Language to be aggressive, which can also contribute to a flawed investigation. A study featured in The National Institute of Justice Journal found that, “police officers who mislabeled a deaf person as drunk or mentally ill or who misread body language as aggressive when a deaf person was simply moving closer to lip-read.” It is in the best interest of all law enforcement agencies to have their employees participate in trainings that would help familiarize them with the needs of the Deaf/HoH community during investigations and emergency responses.
This Deaf Awareness Month, we pledge to continue to be aware of the needs of the Deaf/HoH community as well as do our part to dismantle audist systems that prevent us all from reaching equity. Below is a list of resources that may be helpful in getting more information, survivor services, seeking advocacy, or intervening on audism in the community:
NSVRC Community Specific PRIDE Resource Library (See section on Deaf and Hard of Hearing)