Published April 5, 2013
Starting the Conversation
Addressing domestic violence amongst the Deaf community.

“In this past week alone, I’ve had three new clients, Deaf students, who have experienced rape,” said Erin Esposito, the executive director of Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims (ASADV) and lecturer at NTID. She sees cases like this on a regular basis.

A survey of RIT students conducted over the course of eight years by two associate professors of criminal justice at RIT, Laverne McQuiller Williams and Judy Porter, found that hard of hearing and deaf students had a 50 percent higher chance of being victims of relationship violence. However, many experts including Esposito suggest that the number of cases occurring is much higher than those being reported.

Organizations across campus have been reaching out to students in the Deaf community to try to reduce this statistic and to provide the help they need.

Three students coming to her in one week, is a relatively new rate of reporting for Esposito and ASADV. “We have not seen these numbers before but they are coming to us; they are flooding to us,” said Esposito. “Why? I can only guess because of the community awareness and education intensified and heightened on this campus.”

The Difference in Culture

There are common reasons seen in any culture for why dating violence may occur and why it is not always reported. However, there are some factors that affect the members of the Deaf community specifically.

“When someone has been abused or raped there is a huge barrier to reach out and get help. It’s a struggle because a lot of people feel ashamed; they feel it’s their fault. Their self-esteem is just shot. So taking that first step to reach for help is so instrumental,” explains Esposito. “Deaf people have an even bigger hurdle.”

In addition to facing the challenge of reaching out for help, members of the Deaf community must also overcome barriers in communication and cultural understanding.

The legal system is primarily geared towards hearing individuals so Finding a means of communication as a deaf student can be difficult. Interpreters can help but even when their services are available, it can take hours for members of the Deaf community to complete certain legal processes that take hearing people a matter of mere minutes. For instance, when filling out an order of protection, a hearing individual Can get an interview within five to 15 minutes. A deaf person, however, has to request an interpreter, and then wait an hour or more to get into the interview. “That’s an obstacle in itself,” explains Eposito. “Sometimes that process deters people from wanting to continue.”

In addition to language obstacles, there are differences in culture between the Deaf and hearing communities. “The Deaf community is so small that everyone knows each other,” said Esposito. “Think of a small town mentality. Something happens, five minutes later everyone knows.”

This makes confidentiality extremely important when reporting dating Violence but also extremely difficult to achieve. Many deaf victims worry that they cannot maintain the confidentiality they need to keep them safe and sadly, “The close-knit nature of the [Deaf] community just intensifies the fear of reporting” according to Esposito.

The idea that the physical nature of Sign Languages, like ASL, contributes to the difference between rates of domestic violence in the deaf and hearing communities is a common, but false, rumor. However, despite this inaccuracy, it is often used by abusers within the Deaf community as an excuse for their behavior. “There are people who try to use Deaf culture. They try to justify their facial expressions and gestures as Deaf culture. It is not Deaf culture. It is abuse. There is a difference. There is a big difference.”

The Proposed Solution

Multiple groups on campus are working to address the issue of domestic violence specifically within the Deaf community. Their main efforts include increasing access to services and cultivating awareness of the issue so it can be curbed.

ASADV helps to provide access to necessary resources to victims of dating violence within the Deaf community. This includes providing interpreters, legal and/or medical advocacy and support. At RIT, ASADV has also worked closely with Campus Advocacy Response and Support and RIT’s Center for Women and Gender. ASADV offers a necessary perspective when helping members of the Deaf community.

“We are a Deaf-run agency with a Deaf staff that serves the Deaf community and so we have a connection, an unspoken connection with Deaf people that really can’t be provided any other way,” said Esposito.

Esposito has gone beyond her work in Rochester to try to resolve some of the issues that Deaf victims face on a national level. She recently spoke on a panel in front of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. She shared her own story as a deaf victim of abuse during her childhood and in relationships as a young adult in order to address the issues that this community faces and how to change them.

ASADV continues to improve access to services and to information on the RIT campus as well. This year, they partnered with the RIT branch of the Red Flag Campaign (RFC). Originally started by the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance with the help of members of college campuses and community advocates, the RFC is a national campaign aimed to help raise awareness about dating violence and how to prevent it using bystander intervention.

This approach differs from those of the past; instead of focusing on how not to be a victim, the RFC emphasizes how friends and members of the community can speak up and help prevent these situations. They hope that by providing more information to the community, everyone will become more involved by looking out for the “red flags” of an unhealthy relationship.

Esposito believes that this type of campaigning may be extremely effective for the close-knit deaf community. “If we create an atmosphere where people are genuinely engaged in the bystander approach then people will feel safer and more confident to make these reports.”

Eventually, bystander intervention coupled with increased education about “red flags” could help to discourage rape culture by asking about what action everyone can take to stop dating violence from occurring.

For Esposito, the opportunity to inform college students about these issues in today’s society is an encouraging first step in correcting the problem.

“I’m so glad that we are able to provide people with the tools and resources so that, once they graduate, move, get a job, whatever, they have this information,” said Esposito. “They go out into the working world armed with this knowledge.”

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