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Shelter for Abused Deaf Women Provides Needed Safe Haven

  • Liz Jones

In the U.S., one in four women is a victim of domestic abuse at some point in her life. More than 2000 agencies across the country help women get away from their abusers. But there's a group of women whose calls for help have gone unanswered, until recently. The first-ever housing facility for deaf victims of domestic violence in Seattle, Washington, marks its first anniversary this August.

One of its first residents was Olivia (not her real name, for privacy reasons). She had been living with her boyfriend, but had quickly realized he was manipulative, violent and abusive. She was afraid she and her son were in danger.

It wasn't until months later she realized all that the boy had been through. He hadn't been physically harmed. But he knew bad things had happened.

Eventually, he had questions. "He said, 'Did he rape you mommy?'" she says through a sign language interpreter. "And that was really hard for me to answer because he's six years old. But I had to just take that opportunity and answer him, truthfully. And he just kind of looked at me, and he was so quiet. But I knew I probably just changed his world."

Olivia took her son and left her ex-boyfriend, but soon realized she had nowhere to go, and no money. It's a dilemma many abused women find themselves in. She stayed with friends for a few days. She considered leaving Seattle. But she'd just gotten her master's degree in education and wanted to find a job in the area.

A friend suggested she contact the Seattle non-profit group, Abused Deaf Women Advocacy Services, known as ADWAS. The program was started in 1986 by Marilyn Smith. Her goal was to connect deaf women with counseling and resources.

Smith, like Olivia, is deaf. She explains through an interpreter, that ADWAS was the start of a much more ambitious undertaking. "Many of our clients were going back to their batterers because they had no housing. They had no options. They had no other options that were accessible for them. So we decided we needed to fill that gap."

Last August, Smith opened the only transitional housing in the country for deaf victims of domestic violence.

Deaf and hearing women experience the same rate of domestic violence. But Smith says it's often more difficult for deaf women to get away from their abusers. "A hearing woman can pull up her roots and simply move somewhere else. And find a new community and be anonymous there. That's almost impossible for a deaf woman. They want to stay where their roots are because there aren't that many of us," she explains.

The ADWAS housing is specifically designed for deaf women. All 19 apartments have special TTY phones that display conversations in text. Lights flash when the phone or doorbell rings. TV monitors let residents see who's at the door. And the layout is open, so people can easily lip-read and sign to each other.

But Smith says the most important feature is that all the staff are deaf or use sign language. "That is absolutely the first imperative. Deaf victims don't like to go into hearing programs because of the communication and isolation. It's horribly lonely for them."

Not being heard is something that gets Smith fired up. In 1997, she sued the Seattle police department. She wanted to improve how officers respond to domestic violence calls from deaf people. She says sometimes the deaf women's side of the story would be stifled by the abusers who could hear.

Seattle police officer Marty Bisch hasn't heard of specific cases like that, but admits, "I could see that happening." The 30-year veteran has spent the last five years working in the city's domestic violence unit. He says domestic violence calls can be some of the most dangerous. And communication in those first few minutes when police arrive is crucial. "When you're able to speak Spanish or use a little sign language, whatever it is, something really little to make that connection, I think it really helps," he notes.

Bisch picked up a little sign language in high school. He recalls how it helped him calm a woman who was deaf and had been threatened by domestic violence. "The big difference was, that she just relaxed," he says. "I mean, here you have officers come in your home and start asking you questions. And you can't really communicate with them because you can't speak. And so when she saw that I had some knowledge of sign language, I could just see it: her whole body language and everything just relaxed more."

Bisch isn't a certified interpreter. He just happened to be one of the officers called to that scene. But Smith's lawsuit pushed the department to now provide certified interpreters for any deaf person who dials 911.

Marilyn Smith's shelter program is drawing attention nationwide. The National Association for the Deaf wants her to help launch similar housing projects in 15 other cities.

As for Olivia, she may live in her shelter apartment for up to two years. But even after she and her son move out, she plans to stay involved with ADWAS. "A lot of my therapy has really been in this place, in ADWAS. It's amazing. It's overwhelming to see these strong survivors, all women who have been abused. They are survivors." And she is, too.

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