Nov 122015

Peer Advocate’s Experience of Deaf Women’s Disclosure of Sexual Assault

Noelle Opsahl, Master of Education of the Deaf (M.E.D.)
Gallaudet University

First, a cool thing. Noelle, the presenter,told us that this was the first time she’d given this presentation in English, though she’s presented it in ASL (American Sign Language) several times. Noelle is hearing, and English is her first language. Given that ASL wasn’t even considered a language until a handful of decades ago, it hits all sorts of awesomeness buttons for me that this work was presented through, and grew through, this language.

Noelle gave the audience a brief outline of Deaf culture, hearing privilege, and “Big D” versus “Little d” deaf community.

If you’re not familiar with deafness or Deaf culture, this question-and answer page from the National Association of the Deaf is a helpful place to start.

This page from Gallaudet University has more information specifically about Deaf culture.

It’s a big thing when anyone discloses they’ve been sexually assaulted. whether they’re telling the police, a friend, a family member, sometimes even their own diary. So many emotions can come up, including (but never limited to) fear, denial, shame, embarrassment, relief, back to fear, and more.

How someone reacts to this disclosure can play a big part in how or whether the person who experienced the violence feels safe enough to ask for practical help, mental health services, and anything else they need to help their healing process and help them stay safe.

After several D/deaf people disclosed their experiences of sexual violence to her during her stint as a peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, Noelle Opsahl decided to study D/deaf people’s experiences of disclosing sexual assault or intimate partner violence, particularly to hearing people.

She’s in the midst of her research now, so her presentation focussed on teaching us the basics of D/deaf community and culture, and the nature of sexualized and intimate partner violence in the Deaf community.

The Deaf community has a long history and culture. It (the community) is mostly made up of people who grew up Deaf, and communicate primarily (or even exclusively) through ASL. The community is small, tightly-knit, has cultural norms and taboos that are different from those in English-speaking American culture. (There are, obviously, Deaf communities around the world, all speaking different forms of sign, so to keep things simple, and because its the community Noelle spoke about most in her presentation, I’m talking about folks in the United States.)

No matter where in the U.S. members of the deaf community live, they’re socially and culturally connected, and often know each other, or have heard of each other.

When D/deaf people disclose that they’ve experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, they face additional barriers that hearing folks don’t face. If they’re disclosing to a therapist, doctor, police officer or other helping or law enforcement professional, there will often be a third person in the room – the interpreter. Disclosing to an interpreter, even with confidentiality agreements interpreters sign as part of their work, could feel really vulnerable, and, I imagine, could make disclosing feel like more work than it’s worth.

Or, if there is no interpreter, the Deaf person and the hearing professional might be communicating through writing. Some members of the Deaf community are not fluent in English reading and writing, so this is not going to be the best way for them to get or give information, let alone feel safe and heard around something vulnerable. I was surprised (though I guess I really shouldn’t be) to learn that hearing professionals, such as doctors or police officers, will sometimes, instead of finding an ASL interpreter to help them communicate with a D/deaf person coming to them for treatment or to report a crime, will instead turn to, say, another person in their office who just happens to have a basic knowledge of finger spelling. (Finger-spelling is only a small part of sign language – same as being able to spell out the letters to a word is only a small part of any spoken language.) Noelle made it clear: Don’t do this for important conversations, just don’t. I’m imagining that doing this would be something akin to asking a colleague who’s preparing for a vacation to Italy by reading an Italian phrase book for tourists to come translate for a patient or victim who speaks only Italian.

Disclosing to a hearing person can also be complicated if the person who typically acts as the survivor’s interpreter is also the abuser. This is one of the ways abusers (particularly, but not only, hearing abusers) will isolate their D/deaf victims.

DeafHope, an organization providing culturally specific education and services to D/deaf people, has identified specific behaviours common to abuse by and of d/deaf people, including:

  • Abuser says no one will believe the victim because they (the abuser) is well-known and respected in the deaf community.
  • Abuser justifies invasions of privacy (such as routinely reading victim’s texts and emails without permission) by saying this is culturally acceptable in the Deaf community.
  • Hearing abuser tells children not to use ASL to communicate with their D/deaf parent.

I think this information is especially important for folks working in the sexual assault and domestic violence response fields because much of it might not be recognized as abuse without some knowledge of Deaf culture. Someone persistently signing in someone’s personal space, for example, might simply be perceived by a hearing person as rude; or, the hearing person, with no knowledge of sign language, might not even know that signing in someone’s personal space signifies anger.

The full DeafHope Power and Control Wheel is here.

This model was adapted from Domestic Violence Intervention Project’s Power and Control Wheel.

Both of these wheels use gendered language, with the man as the abuser and presuming the woman is the abused partner. While man-to-woman intimate partner violence is prevalent, and has gotten the most research and intervention resources, anyone of any gender can abuse or be abused in a relationship. I really would like to see more intimate partner violence research and intervention organizations using gender-neutral language so that more people will feel safe to reach out for help.

Noelle’s presentation was full of information, and I’m excited to see where her research goes.

I’m also really glad that her work was included at a disability conference, since the Deaf community and disability community usually see themselves as having different goals. (Many people in the Deaf community do not think of deafness as a disability.)

One more thing I should mention: Noelle was clear that she is a hearing person, that she has advantages and power as a hearing person, and that, as a researcher, and as someone who spends a lot of time with the deaf community, she’s in no way speaking for D/deaf people. I’m not the best judge since I’m not part of the Deaf community, but I think she succeeds in this. Her presentation was educational, without trying to explain what it feels like to be D/def or part of the Deaf community and without making generalizations about anyone’s experiences.

Keynote Presentation: Harilyn Rousso

Harilyn is truly an elder – an experienced and wise person – in both the disability rights and feminist communities. She has my endless admiration for all the work she’s done, and the honesty she shows in her stories. Hearing her speak, and read from her memoir, was a pleasure, and an education.
Many of the stories in Harilyn’s memoir Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back echo the themes of both movements – moving away from helplessness towards independence, expressing sexuality, and building positive self-esteem and body image.

Don’t Call Me Inspirational puts words to the experiences many of us have had growing into adulthood with physical disabilities. Being blind, learning to drive was never on the table for me, but Harilyn’s words in Driving High feel so familiar. Deciding to take this rite of passage was an internal conflict, being tugged between being coaxed to learn by her mother who knew how crucial it would be for her independence, hearing her doctor say she’d be a hazard to other drivers, experiencing her own doubts:

I, too, had doubts about my driving, but these had little to do with my physical limitations. The image of myself as a driver was incongruous with some internal experience I had of myself of needing to be cared for and directed, of not being able to be in the driver’s seat of my own life.

And these words, from On Not Looking in the Mirror lodged in my mind as soon as I heard them, and have stayed with me: “I buy a full-length mirror, not to please my mother–although she would be pleased–not to fix myself but to find myself.”

The reading was followed by a question-and-answer session.
When an audience member asked how she’s managed work-life balance with everything she’s accomplished, harilyn laughed, and pointed out that she’s done all this work over decades. She shared that she paces herself, that she’s stopped trying to prove anything to anyone. Many disabled people find themselves in the position of feeling like they have to prove themselves by doing everything mor and better than other people – playing “supercrip” as Harilyn put it.
She also had some solid advice for professionals about addressing their own biases around disability, as well as around race, class, and other marginalized experiences. Therapists and other helping professionals, Harilyn told us, like to think they don’t have biases and assumptions, but they do. They can’t do their work well if they don’t face and work through these assumptions. She also encouraged helping professionals to keep listening, and to be comfortable with saying that they don’t have all the answers. Harilyn didn’t mention this, but I’d like to add that many people have strong personal fears about disability and illness, so it’s especially important for helping professionals to understand their own fears so they don’t project them onto disabled patients or clients.

UP Next: Day 3: The hypersexualization of women diagnosed with bipolr disorder, closing “Town Hall” session, and my own thoughts about how to use what I’ve learned.