At the national Women’s Aid conference this year, I was amazed to find I was the only Deaf survivor there. Despite a full house, there was no evidence of British Sign Language (BSL) users in attendance. I asked who in the room supported Deaf survivors – and shockingly, was met with silence.
Deaf women are twice as likely as their hearing peers to suffer domestic abuse. Around 22 Deaf women are at risk of abuse every day. Ironically, a key role in this is played by BSL, their preferred language – as every word and expression could be a potential trigger.
The history of BSL is itself laden with centuries of oppression of Deaf people. That it has survived, and continues to evolve as a living language (and has only now acquired formal legislation in Scotland) is testimony to the resolve of Deaf people themselves. After all, it’s their main form of communication – so they will bloody well use it, whatever the circumstances.
One in six of us are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and only around a third of us are part of a Deaf Community. Two-thirds of deaf or hard-of-hearing people don’t hang out with other deaf or hard-of-hearing people – they might wear hearing aids and lip read but they don’t sign, and they may prefer to integrate with hearing people. Many of those people become deaf through old age and are often isolated from other deaf people.
Moreover, if your perpetrator is active within the Deaf Community, they’ll know how to exploit your communication skills. This inhibits you from reaching out to even your closest Deaf friends – never mind your family (many of whom lack signing skills).
But the experience of domestic abuse for Deaf women is the same as hearing women. We are seduced by our perpetrator’s apparent sincerity, their psychological control – grooming us for abuse. By the time the violence turns physical, we’re emotionally and mentally paralysed, unable to articulate ourselves properly to those close to us.
Your trust, self-esteem and well-being thus broken, your signing breaks up too. You daren’t explain the smallest detail of your abuse to anyone, for fear word reaches your perpetrator (gossip spreads fast in the Deaf Community). With so many eyes on you, clear-headed objectivity feels impossible.
You cannot hide your emotions behind sign language quite like you can with the written word. Deaf people are well-known for bluntness, which doesn’t sit well with a democracy where justice must prevail, and people are innocent until proven guilty.
How best to address this issue? I was lucky enough to be able to access DeafHope, the UK’s first anti-domestic abuse service for Deaf survivors – but sadly, few will be in their London catchment area. The only advice I could give that day at the Women’s Aid conference was placing BSL clips on their websites (see example).
To that, I’d add Deaf awareness training and a few BSL classes. The more we can work together on the issue, the more chances will improve of Deaf survivors ‘speaking out’ like I did.