Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Marilyn J. Smith, and the Power of Deaf Coalition-Building

Content Warning: The following contains information related to sexual assault and domestic violence, including some details from survivors’ stories. If you or a loved one is a survivor in search of resources, contact the National Domestic Violence Abuse Hotline to connect with a Deaf advocate at VP# 855.812.1001. Email, TTY and live chat are also available here. As with any emergency, if you or someone else is in immediate danger, dial 911.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), first nationally recognized in 2001. At the time, organizers used the momentum from the 1993 Violence Against Women Act to dismantle taboos around the discussion of sexual assault and domestic violence, and increase visibility and resource access for survivors.

Marilyn J. Smith

But the history of advocacy for protecting and supporting survivors long predates the official month, with Black women and women of color at the forefront of movements to address abuse alongside the larger fight for equal rights, and against race and gender-based violence. Today, SAAM’s mission has broadened to address prevention at school in the workplace, and be more inclusive for survivors of varied backgrounds, experiences, and languages. But before mainstream resources were considering how to best support deaf and hard-of-hearing survivors, one Deaf woman in particular was a leader in the movement for access: Marilyn Jean Smith, current CSD board member, founder of Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS), and a survivor herself.


A Widespread Issue

Deaf children and adults are at high risk of sexual assault, being 150% more likely to experience assault, abuse or bullying than their hearing counterparts. The risk is so high in part because abusers take advantage of D/HH people because language barriers so often isolate them from loved ones and from information, resources, and authorities that could help them avoid or escape victimization.

Smith experienced these barriers to justice and support first-hand as a college student, after being assaulted by an unknown intruder who entered her dorm room through the window. While reporting her attack, she struggled to communicate with the police, who Smith said did not respect her or treat her rape as a crime and made no arrests. The experience of dealing with uncaring authorities was salt in Smith’s wounds, but it also propelled her toward a life of advocacy—she made a vow to spend her days making sure other deaf survivors would not be doubly traumatized in the way she had been.

Marilyn J. Smith

Standing Up for Survivors

Smith went on to found ADWAS, a Seattle-based organization to support survivors, then supported the training of Deaf women in 15 different cities, and many of whom went on to establish likeminded organizations. In 2015, CSD had the honor of working with 13 sister organizations on the #WhoWillAnswer campaign to raise awareness and funding for a 24/7 ASL-based hotline for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault resources. The Deaf Hotline, a partnership between the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) and ADWAS, exists today and is accessible by videophone, instant message, or email.

Marilyn J. Smith

Carrying on the Legacy

In addition to the essential resources the Hotline provides, Smith’s legacy and the #WhoWillAnswer campaign was also a source of inspiration for CSD in founding the new Unites Community Foundation. The Foundation is built on the knowledge that Deaf community organizations are stronger together, and seeks to be a resource hub for networking, coalition-building and powering grassroots movements to maximize their reach.

The CSD Unites Community Foundation continues to work for the health and dignity of deaf people, during SAAM and beyond. For updates about the Foundation’s grants and other programming, subscribe here. To access services for Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and DeafBlind as provided by NDVH, visit them on the web here.

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