The Deaf community exists subtly. They don’t look or act differently, but they do communicate with a completely different language than most hearing Americans are used to. American Sign Language (ASL) was developed in the 1800’s and has made many strides in allowing the Deaf to communicate. It is recognized as a complete language used by hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. This language has opened so many doors for the Deaf, but too many remain closed because of the lack of accessibility in the hearing world.
It is estimated that about 50% of the Deaf community has been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. However, approximately only 5% of Deaf survivors report the abuse (RAINN, 2020). Why do so few victims report? One of the main reasons is that the systems and options for reporting have been designed in ways that are inaccessible to them. Communication barriers between Deaf and those who do not know ASL can make it very hard to articulate what has happened, who the perpetrator was, and that they need help.
ASL has allowed the Deaf community to be just that, a community, but outside of their tight-knit group, they face various communication barriers that create challenges for reporting. Emphasis on language access is placed mainly on the many languages spoken in the United States, but most Deaf people can understand almost none. Moving towards directions that actively include Deaf and hard of hearing people instead of further isolating them or increasing their dependency on others should always be the larger goal. As Sally Gillespie states, our collective aspiration should be increasing the comfort of interaction between the Deaf and hearing world and removing the barriers for Deaf and hard of hearing people to create a society “where deaf people communicate with hearing people direct[ly], without the need to have someone else to say their words for them.”
Until that end, interpreters are very helpful and can allow conversation between individuals across different languages. Despite the fact that access to an interpreter is legally required when requested, Deaf and hard of hearing survivors may still face obstacles. When the availability of interpreters is limited, which can be the case for rural or small communities, the interpreter may be someone the victim knows. They may not be comfortable telling them what happened. Even when a professional interpreter is available, it is important to acknowledge that whenever a victim needs to share the details of their assault, it can be very traumatic. It can feel like an invasion of privacy to need to tell an additional third party about a difficult event. It’s also important to acknowledge that they are various forms of abuse tactics that people who perpetrate sexual abuse may use to target Deaf and hard of hearing people. This can look like people who perpetrate abuse weaponizing the barriers Deaf people face, and it’s even possible an interpreter could perpetrate abuse. The advocacy group Activating Change notes that “services designed and run by members of Deaf communities” as a key solution to challenging the systemic barriers that prevent Deaf survivors from getting the help they need.
Bridging gaps and removing systemic barriers is a task that every member of the hearing world should prioritize. As with other languages, many people believe that simply learning a few words or signs is enough to do the work of being a good ally. However, this cannot be the only destination we arrive at when considering how to help Deaf survivors; getting to the heart of the systemic barriers is key. According to Activating Change, “68% of victim service providers report rarely or never serving Deaf survivors. 1 in 10 victim service providers report using children of survivors as interpreters. 23% of service providers report no sign language interpreters in their area. 25% of victim service organizations identified Deaf and hard of hearing people as underserved. As these statistics tell us, much more advancement is needed in order to provide inclusive support to Deaf individuals.
Although larger, more fundamental changes are needed, small tangible steps are little ways that everyone can start moving toward more inclusivity. So, what can you do as a hearing individual that may come into contact with a sexual assault survivor that is Deaf? Learning some crucial signs that one might use after an assault, such as “Do you need help?” or “Are you hurt?” can help you break the ice as a bystander. Never let language or disability barriers make you too afraid to intervene, as this goes against the direction of inclusivity and further isolates members of the Deaf community. Deaf translation apps and online resources to learn are excellent places to begin (see our resource list below). For those working with survivors, being able to sign who you are and what you do can change the course of their story and inform how safe they feel in the future when seeking or needing help. Having a notepad and pen or word processor nearby is a good best practice as well, but in the case that the survivor doesn’t have reading and writing skills, knowing as many signs as possible is ideal. The larger goal is bridging gaps and uniting the Deaf and hearing community in solidarity, support, and ensuring violence prevention for everyone.
Thrive Together is a nonprofit organization trying to do just this. Based in Iowa, we travel to all 99 counties in Iowa to advocate and serve Deaf/hard-of-hearing survivors. A majority of our staff are Deaf and fluent in ASL, while the remaining hearing staff knows ASL. Our mission is to empower deaf and hard of hearing individuals by providing the services that they need most. We also provide the necessary training for emergency responders to be able to aid Deaf and hard of hearing survivors competently. Please reach out to us with any questions or if you or anyone you know is in need of our services.
Elise Parker is the Outreach Coordinator for Thrive Together. She is hearing and learned ASL through the University of Northern Iowa where she graduated in 2022 with a degree in psychology. She has been working with Thrive for 4 months and is ready to see where the organization can take her in the coming months and years.