Behind Closed Doors: WOW Exeter 2018 and Deaf abuse survivors

I am taking the train to Exeter St David’s on a beautiful day. The peaceful cumulus straddling the giant expanse of blue outside my window reflects my thoughts: assured of my place of safety and comfort, but not resolutely clear.

Today I’m joining a 2pm panel discussion about domestic abuse, Behind Closed Doors, chaired by Jude Kelly as part of WOW Exeter 2018, and I’m keen to share some of my Deaf survivor experiences.

The risk, in doing so, is inherent. I have PTSD and depression, both of which were triggered by cyberbullying following previous ‘outings’. (You can see my first one here.) I have young children to protect.

I belong to a 156,000-strong, intrinsically expressive Deaf/BSL Community that thrives on open communication and gossip – ensuring a high concentration of British Sign Language (BSL) users who know both me and my ex-partners, especially if they’re Deaf. (I expand on the theme here)

So if I don’t divulge certain details, focussing instead on information that doesn’t ‘date’ the abuse at a specific point in time – you know why.

However, I will not be cowed. My perpetuators know that I am one of very few Deaf women not just prepared to speak out – but able to, because I have the ability to articulate myself well to a mainstream or hearing audience. But you know what? If they try to stop me, they cannot profess to be an ally of the Deaf/BSL Community when they practise what we seek to overcome.

Since beginning my work with fellow Deaf survivors – both in a professional capacity, and more informally – I have come to realise how vital their contribution is to everyday discourse about domestic abuse, and yet how lacking it is. As an artist and writer who values freedom of expression in her work, that speaks most deeply to me.

And there are honestly others who recognise this too. In 2015, I was invited onto a panel discussion at the Women’s Aid annual conference, where I became the only Deaf survivor addressing a packed room directly. Later that year, I gave a 45-minute presentation at the NHS Safeguarding annual conference, in which purple became the token colour.

Again, I was the first Deaf survivor to speak out there. 350 people fell completely silent.

Earlier this year, I collaborated in a workshop with DeafHope survivors as part of Statements in Semaphore, an Arts Council-funded project led by Susan Merrick. (You can read more about the workshop here.)

In two hours, I had become a fan of the survivors. The dignity and composure they showed, as they worked patiently on their effigies, reminded me of our unbroken spirit, and evoked memories of how I felt after completing my own course with DeafHope some years ago.

It also made me very sad. These women were resilient because they had to be – but how many of them could stand up on stage and address a hearing audience? For Deaf women, the usual disincentive to come forward is aggravated by, again, communication barriers.

Visible though the survivors’ art is, it exists only as anonymous messages. Their experiences, and what they do afterwards to ensure their safety, remain hidden.

Within the wider society, our position is vulnerable. 90% of all Deaf and hard-of-hearing people come from hearing families, the majority of whom don’t sign. Having a deaf child doesn’t guarantee increased deaf awareness, ensuring that the communication barriers between child and parent become their own institution.

Being clueless in the matter, if they’re not inquisitive enough, parents will then turn to medical advice to ‘solve’ the problem instead. Some will, unfortunately, start abusing their deaf children as a way of deflecting their guilt – thus setting the tone for future toxic relationships.

For people like that, the very idea of calling out domestic abuse in adulthood becomes an insurmountable challenge. I am very lucky to have had loving parents (communication barriers notwithstanding), and an understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship – but even I have faced enormous pressures to not come forward.

Sharing my experiences briefly with a compassionate audience at WOWExeter today, I am assured of their support. There are four other people on the panel besides me – chair and WOW founder Jude Kelly; Elizabeth Langley and Karen Atkinson of SPLITZ; and Sasha Nathanson of Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE). It’s a lovely panel, with courageous stories of their own to share, and Jude is kind and accommodating. The 45-minute discussion is even-handed, with a few more minutes for audience questions. My PTSD inhibits me a little when I give my background, but I push on nevertheless, and hope the audience gets the message.

However afterwards, when the BSL interpreters are gone and people come up to congratulate me, the barriers remain. I wonder then how I can advance from this?

I am not Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Even within my own community I don’t have an international movement backing me with #IBelieveHer on social media. I do not have the time or the energy, for practical reasons as a single parent and carer of a disabled child, to campaign for better support for Deaf survivors.

I can write and make art, and use both to effect change. I can get others to do the same, collaboratively or otherwise. I can continue representing Deaf survivors at mainstream events. But I cannot do that alone. There needs to be a Deaf collective, not a one-woman band, for real change to take place.

The onus is on you, dear reader, to share this blog as widely as you can. Make sure it reaches Deaf survivors and their allies, and encourage them to join ranks with me. We may not be able to hide the emotion pouring forth from the sign language we use, or even avoid their symbiosis altogether. But if we can be emotional together, the more powerful our message will be.

The cumulus is passing. It is time.

(Edited on 16th October 2018 for clarity.)

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NHS Safeguarding: Hidden Voices Conference, 27th October 2015

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The picture above shows over 350 hearing medical professionals standing to give a hand wave in solidarity for the Deaf survivor who gave a raw and painful account of her domestic abuse experiences, in BSL, for 45 minutes.

That survivor was me. NHS Safeguarding’s invitation in October 2015 came courtesy of Women’s Aid, at whose annual conference I had also appeared the previous summer. It was not a public conference, but one attended by senior NHS medical professionals, which made for an ideal ‘safe space’.

It was also oversubscribed: tickets sold out within three weeks of release in July, and there were another 280 on the waiting list.

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Presenting as a keynote speaker at such a prestigious event was a honour. I was especially touched that NHS Safeguarding made purple – the colour I wore when I ‘came out’ as a survivor during #deafpurplethursday (more info here) – their signature colour, even getting delegates to wear something purple. The theme – Hidden Voices – was established after direct consultation with me.

It is by far the most important presentation I have ever had to make.

Women’s Aid Annual Conference, 1st July 2015

Waiting for the Women’s Aid conference panel to start, July 2015

On 1st July 2015, I made my first appearance at a conference specifically aimed at survivors of domestic abuse.

For its latest conference, the national anti-domestic abuse organisation Women’s Aid invited me to join a panel chaired by its CEO Polly Neate that focused on minority perspectives. I was the first ever Deaf survivor to speak out about my experience as an example of the particular issues affecting the Deaf Community. My presentation lasted all of seven minutes – yet it made the biggest impact, due to the specialist subject-matter.

Twice as many Deaf women are at risk of gender violence as hearing women every day, yet still lack access to suitable anti-domestic abuse services due to both language and communication barriers and a persistent lack of funding. The situation is likely to get worse thanks to deepening cuts made by the government, which also impact on women’s refuges and mainstream anti-domestic abuse services.

Crash and Burn panel discussion, WOW Festival, Friday 6th March 2015

Being on the Crash and Burn discussion panel last Friday was a cathartic event for me. ‘Coming out’ about my grief, and especially the role it played in my life – marriage breakdown, family estrangement, mental health, self-worth, parenting abilities – and how I turned it around (an affair, divorce, counselling, my blog and film) was certainly the most personal thing I’d ever done with a live audience. I have no regrets. 

Because it was so ‘no holds barred’, I was able to assert myself properly as a proud Deaf woman who accepted disability as a part of life, but also had room to accept that there would always be people who could never address grief in the way I had, for all sorts of reasons.

My six-minute summary went down very well. The Purcell Room, where the discussion took place, was fairly well-attended and I got enthusiastic applause when I finished, with about a third of the audience giving a BSL handwave. 

There were five on the panel, including myself and the legendary Rosie Boycott, who was chair. She and two of the other women had their own personal catastrophes to share: alcoholism/homelessness (Boycott), bipolar disorder (Hannah Parkinson), human trafficking/prostitution/rape arising from an early life in extreme poverty (Marieme Jamme) – with the fourth, Polly Harrar, founder of the SHARAN Project, acting in an objective capacity offering information and advice. 

They were all brilliant and I loved how diverse they were. Last, but not least, the Love Language team – Naomi, Vicky, Karen (who voiced me most of the time) and Nicky – all did a fantastic job of ensuring adequate BSL/spoken English interpretation for all. 

See the highlights video for more.