Domestic Abuse Awareness: Who Will Answer


Through partnerships, sharing resources and creating awareness, we continue to build a social movement. We recognize a need, and together, we work towards a solution that brings about change within our communities …

Not only am I a lifelong advocate, I am a survivor.

Having witnessed firsthand the lasting impact that violence has on individuals, I became innately aware of the need to create awareness that violent behavior or abuse is not acceptable.

This need led to my volunteer participation on boards of organizations that serve deaf and hard of hearing survivors of violence. I also participated in a nationwide training effort to establish deaf-focused programs, with the goal of replicating a proven national model established by Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) for my local community. Currently, through my work at Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. (CSD), I oversee and provide support to statewide domestic violence and sexual assault (DVSA) programs.

As part of my training at ADWAS, I experienced what it was like “In Her Shoes.”  I was given grim, realistic perspective as to the many challenges that survivors may encounter when attempting to leave an abusive relationship: be it from finding a safe place, child care, navigating the legal system or choosing to return home (which typically meant more abuse or even death). The cycle was heartbreaking. It was when I “died” that I realized how much of a critical need there was for direct access to resources through communication and cultural understanding. With fully accessible services, the survivor is better positioned to leave and begin a new life without abuse.

The 1998 ADWAS National Replication Project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) established 15 deaf-led, deaf-focused domestic violence/sexual assault (DVSA) advocacy programs or organizations throughout the nation. Yet, a significant part of our community, especially those in rural areas, still aren’t able to access direct services. This is where the Deaf National Domestic Violence Hotline (DNDVH) comes in. The hotline provides necessary resources, along with a lighted pathway for those needing support.

To have the right for equal access to support.

To live free of violence and abuse.

To teach others by example.

Together, let’s make this vision a reality.

The Beginning of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Movement within the Deaf Community

Around the same time the national DV movement began throughout the U.S., the deaf DVSA movement was ignited by the 1981 murder of a deaf woman in Seattle. Her abusive, deaf husband had axed her to death as she tried to leave him. Members of the deaf community were deeply affected by this incomprehensible act. Upon realization that she wasn’t able to access any shelters or services that would meet her communication and cultural needs ­— which may have saved her life — the community began to mobilize. It was at this time that Marilyn J. Smith, founder and former longtime executive director of ADWAS, organized a group of deaf and hearing women and parents of deaf children to discuss a pertinent need: fully accessible support services for deaf survivors. One year later, in 1986, ADWAS was formed in the basement of Marilyn’s home with a $4,000 grant.

A survivor herself, Marilyn, along with the support of other key advocates, began expanding programming throughout the Seattle area, including the establishment the nation’s first transitional shelter specially designed for Deaf survivors. ADWAS was also asked by the DOJ to do another national training initiative in 2008 and 2009.  By this time, the training would connect with over 30 locations throughout the nation in an effort to establish deaf-specific support services, organizations that understood cultural nuances and the need for direct service support in American Sign Language (ASL).

ASL is a unique language with its own grammatical rules and syntax. When ASL is translated into English, key information may be lost or misunderstood. We promote the use of either direct support through deaf domestic violence advocates or trained sign language interpreters. Other national organizations such as the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence also emphasize the use of trained sign language interpreters. When an interpreter is involved in communication facilitation, it is necessary that this interpreter be certified, trained and experienced in interpreting for domestic violence and/or specific situations.

Even more so, information exchanges become increasingly difficult when a person has experienced trauma, is in crisis or if the information conveyed is complex— all of which apply to deaf survivors. Deaf survivors, too, have the right to effective communication and equal access to services.

Critical Need: Addressing Higher Prevalence of Abuse in the Deaf Community

Another national organization, the Vera Institute of Justice, is committed to enhancing victim services and justice responses to better meet the needs of all crime victims, especially those from marginalized communities. Vera was introduced to deaf culture in 2005 after launching a new project to improve access to services for crime victims with disabilities. In 2001, a Centers for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD) study showed that only six percent of DVSA shelters throughout the U.S. were able to support those with disabilities. Since the statewide charter projects were implemented through Vera’s partnership with the DOJ, positive progress has been made through the work of statewide disability, deaf, and DVSA coalitions, agencies and organizations, along with their communities. However, much work still remains.

Research from Vera shows that not only do deaf women experience higher rates of sexual and domestic violence than hearing women, but they are often shut out from victim services and support services that would allow them to leave safely, heal from trauma and seek justice after they have been abused.

What’s more:

  • Twenty-five percent of deaf individuals experience emotional abuse. In addition to domestic violence, emotional abuse can be very damaging to those in the deaf and hard of hearing community. It leaves survivors at an emotional risk and can impair their future relationships.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are 150 percent more likely to be victims of assault, abuse and bullying in their lifetime.
  • Domestic violence impacts one out of every two deaf women and one out of every six deaf men.
  • Deaf women in the U.S. experience rates of domestic and/or sexual violence equal to or higher than their hearing counterparts, with emerging research pointing to rates twice that of hearing women.

The Value of the Hotline

In 2003, ADWAS was awarded a contract to manage a National Abused Deaf Hotline (what it was called at that time). With this contract, the first national domestic violence toll-free hotline supporting the needs of deaf survivors was established. The DNDVH provides for a vital connection for those who reach out, particularly those who may not have immediate access to direct support. Current funding allows the DNDVH to operate on a national scale from 9 a.m to 5 p.m, Pacific Time, during weekdays. Additionally, because of local funding, ADWAS does offer 24/7 hotline services to the Seattle community. They’ve not yet the ability to offer this same support nationwide, because of the limited funds received.

As Tiffany Williams, executive director of ADWAS, shares, the hotline is not only a key resource for survivors; it also provides a variety of support services for individuals who experienced situations of violence. Seventy-five percent of their calls serve survivors, but 25 percent serve other purposes: families, friends, professionals, schools and vocational rehabilitation counselors.

“Other” examples may include:

  • A teenager witnesses his friend being bullied. He isn’t comfortable about discussing this with people at his school or his family.
  • A college student has a friend who she thinks is in a harmful relationship but doesn’t know what to do.
  • Mainstream “hearing” DVSA agencies and shelters may be unsure of how to work with deaf survivors and are not sure who to contact.

Community Accountability, Social Responsibility and … #WhoWillAnswer

While the hotline is a valuable national resource for deaf survivors, it is also underfunded. Since recognition of this need, we’ve organized efforts to establish a funding stream to ensure that 24/7 services were provided at any time, anywhere. In early 2014, CSD discovered prospective funding to expand the hotline’s direct support services to 24/7 through the DOJ Vision 21 grants. By means of collaboration with ADWAS and several deaf-specific DVSA organizations throughout our nation, we would be able to provide: outreach programming for each DVSA organization, a web-based video platform for ease of connecting with the hotline, and a resource center where deaf-specific DVSA organizations may freely share information with another. This resource center would host a library of trainings, toolkits, policy recommendations and resources for individuals in states who have yet to establish direct services for deaf survivors.

In spite of the fact that our grant proposals weren’t approved, our team at CSD believed that the hotline was an essential resource for our community. We desired to bring awareness to an apparent need: centralized, ASL-accessible resources for the deaf survivors and shared resources and information among our deaf-specific DVSA organizations. Barriers to communication would not exist, allowing us our right to functional equality and autonomy.

The fire was still alive and our team at CSD couldn’t allow those flames to fade away. Then came the idea: Why not fund the 24/7 hotline through a crowdfunding platform? We then developed our own platform and social media channels, built a coalition with our sister organizations, worked with community members, and asked survivors to share their stories and of why there was a need for 24/7 access to direct support services. The #WhoWillAnswer campaign was officially launched on November 3, 2014, nearly one year ago today.

Over the course of the year, we’ve received answers from diverse individuals and groups all over the world who have participated in this movement, through feedback and support, media interviews, hosting fundraising and awareness events, such as the #wwaderby and #wwawhitegala, donating proceeds of funds from their products, sharing their stories and more …  Engaging our community was a key success of the #WhoWillAnswer campaign. Each individual effort made a difference towards creating nationwide awareness and raised over $25,000 for the establishment of a 24/7 hotline for deaf and hard of hearing survivors and their communities.

Though public awareness of the deaf communities has increased, many times I am the first deaf person that a person has ever met. The continued lack of mainstream knowledge and awareness again reinforces a great need to create opportunity for deaf survivors to communicate or receive support from those who understand the nuances of one’s culture or language. It was vital for our communities to come together throughout this campaign and work towards the establishment of the 24/7 hotline – for this is a significant investment that WILL make a difference.

The Significance of Public Policy

In the past — and unfortunately, still in some smaller communities today — violence among members was considered the norm and/or taboo to discuss, even more so within tight knit, smaller communities such as deaf communities. Before policy was formed, persons who experienced violence often did not have a designated place for support of those who specifically shared similar experiences. This would change, however, with the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Beginning in 1989, Congress officially recognized Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) in the month of October. In honor of this year’s DVAM, President Barack Obama proclaimed “VAWA significantly transformed our nation – it enhanced the criminal justice response to violence against women and expanded survivors’ access to immediate assistance and long-term resources to rebuild their lives. The Family Violence and Prevention Services Act is another important piece of legislation that improved our public health response to domestic violence and increased the availability of critical services for victims.”

VAWA is administered through the DOJ.   Additionally, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) — one of seven components of the DOJ— administers the Crime Victims Fund, which was developed by the 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to help victims and victim service providers with program funding. VOCA has proven to be a key pipeline to create and expand programs to end violence in our communities today.

Currently, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) is funded through the Family Violence Prevention Services Act (FVPSA), of which the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) administers and operates through the Family Violence and Services Program. In the FVPSA rules, there is a current mandate to provide for a plan to serve individuals with hearing loss. However, the current language as it is allows for interpretation of the agency or organization to determine how much funding is allocated to support deaf survivors who are in need of direct access to hotline support services. The good news as of recent is that the government is recommending new rules for FVPSA and requesting public input. All public comments are expected by December 14, 2015. Policy change is necessary to create sustainable funding for the hotline.

Believing in the Future …

Looking back, it has been an incredible year, with people appearing out of various communities, offering their thoughts, ideas, and support. For this, we are truly grateful and we also recognize that this is a meaningful, valuable issue for our community. This is an issue of equality… If hearing citizens throughout the U.S. are able to access direct support services at any time, anywhere, why can’t we?

We invite the community to continue to take action. Sign the petition at, send in public comments, and share with your colleagues and networks. With your support, we will come closer to having equal access to direct support services whenever we are in need.  With national 24/7 direct advocacy and support services, lives will be saved.

Though we’ve come a long way in 30 years,we still have a ways to go.  Join us in continuing to make a difference! 


— Nikki Soukup
Director of Program Operations

Want to become an advocate?

Learn more about CSD’s Campaigns

Donate to Deaf Organizations Fund