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Blog: Deaf survivors and domestic abuse

Originally published on the Women’s Aid website on 7th December 2015. Part of their 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign. Blog link here

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.

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.

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING selected for Aesthetica

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LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING has had the best news so far since its release.

It is one of two Zoom/Zoom Focus films selected for Aesthetica, a mainstream short film festival taking place over four days this November in York. The other documentary also selected is THE BIG DECISIONS, a 15′ documentary short by John Finn that explores the repercussions of a decision he and his wife, both of whom are themselves deaf, made to give their deaf child a cochlear implant.

What makes this news so exciting is that as a result of this, we have won our first festival laurels, which will improve our chances of selection for future festivals (see the logo incorporated into our brand-new poster image above).

Not only that, but Aesthetica has an additional prestige, as Maverick Litchfield-Kelly, Zoom series producer, explains:

‘Aesthetica is a mainstream international film festival, and being in the official selection means that both films will be eligible to be submitted for the BAFTA Awards in 2016. Only a select number of festivals worldwide are BAFTA-qualifying, so this is a massive achievement for films in BSL.’

Congratulations to everyone involved in both films. See BSL Zone’s report with Melissa explaining more in a clip here.

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.

2015 CINEDEAF Awards

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Me at CINEDEAF Festival, the day before the Awards

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING was unexpectedly nominated for Best Documentary in the 2015 CINEDEAF Awards in Rome on Sunday 7th June, where the film had its Italian premiere and I was invited on stage for a brief presentation in International Sign.

It was also the documentary’s first screening abroad. Congratulations are in order for everyone involved, particularly Neath Films, the interviewees and the children who also featured.

Upon my return I gave a brief account of my visit to Rome on the BSL Zone here. I don’t mind repeating that I felt welcome and loved my stay there.

Click here to watch the nominated film

First draft play script uploaded

My first ever piece of playwriting has been uploaded to Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB website, albeit as an early draft.

How’s Your Garden? is the story of a survivor set in the suffragette era. A ten-minute short involving three characters, the play takes place over one night at a rich dowager’s townhouse, and explores themes of personal freedom, love, and votes for women with a sprinkling of euphemistic fun amidst doses of opium and the heady scent of a summer garden.

Click here to read the draft script. 

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. 

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING: feedback

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An excellent review of the film in The Limping Chicken can be viewed here.

Comments on Listen, Even When Your Heart Is Crying:

‘I was confounded by your film. You handled a number of issues sensitively and intelligently. I also liked the way it was constructed’
‘Visually rich and colourful, as well as profound…I liked the bits where the subjects were viewed from behind frosted glass, like the way you feel when you’re dealing with raw grief. Sort of frozen and detached from the world’
‘A broadcast breakthrough’
‘A wonderful and refreshingly honest film. Thankyou for letting us in’
‘I would like everyone reading my status to spend a valuable 25 minutes watching this unforgettable film’
‘Absolutely spot on on all levels, beautifully filmed…the shining stars were the children’
‘I think you have opened up space for discussions that are so badly needed. I think previous generations (for whatever reason) saw talking about this stuff as a sign of weakness. They put on a ‘brave’ face, but never really dealt with many issues. It was something considered ‘private’, swept under the carpet. But actually, sharing experiences like this helps us realize how common these emotions are. It’s part of a process that so many of us relate to. You hit the nail on the head!’
‘I feel oddly “healed” after watching your film, almost as if I am able to finally close a door’
‘A breath of fresh air’
‘Life-affirming’

See the film here

Many thanks to the crew and Neath Films, my mentor Caroline O’Neill, and all the contributors 

Zoom Focus: LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING goes live

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The documentary went out on Film4 at 8am today, and has so far received an enormous positive response. It will be repeated tomorrow (Tuesday), Thursday and Saturday – more scheduling details, including channels, can be found on http://www.thebslzone.co.uk (click on ‘TV schedule’ at the top of the page).

It is also live on the BSL Zone website. Watch it here: http://www.bslzone.co.uk/watch/zoom-2014-listen-even-when-your-heart-crying/