Protecting Deaf Women from Domestic Violence

“I’m standing here because of someone, someone who made a difference,” Stephanie Johnson said October 17 before a large audience gathered in Elstad Auditorium for the second presentation in the 150th anniversary lecture series. Johnson, a mental health counseling graduate student with the Department of Counseling, was a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Because of this someone, I was able to get services,” said Johnson, through the Deaf Abused Women’s Network (DAWN).
Johnson revealed this life-altering experience during her introduction of Gallaudet alumna Marilyn J. Smith, ’74 & G-’77, who was awarded an honorary degree from her alma mater in 2004 for her national campaign to assist deaf women who are victims of abuse. Smith gave a presentation about her challenging journey creating Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS).
“My remarks are genuinely coming from my heart,” said Smith. A victim of a 1981 rape, Smith was finally compelled to take action to help other deaf women like herself in response to a deaf woman who was killed by her abusive husband in Seattle, Wash. The victim had been unable to use local resources due to communication barriers. “There was nothing available for deaf women,” Smith said. “To be raped or beaten is horrible, but then to not have any place to go for help is an injustice that is too great to ignore.”

Smith’s goal was to create an organization staffed by deaf people to help deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind women heal from their ordeals from sexual or domestic violence. She started ADWAS in 1986 in the basement of her home with 20 volunteers and $4,000 in start-up funds. The group began working … “without a road map, mission, action plans, or strategic goals,” said Smith, but what it lacked in direction was compensated by determination. The volunteers accompanied victims to court and visited them in hospitals–a challenge during the late 1980s since “violence was a private matter not discussed in public.”  Privacy within the tight-knit deaf community was a major obstacle in ADWAS’ early days, and prevented many deaf women from seeking help. Smith understood cultural norms and the issue of confidentiality, given the small size of the deaf community. Smith herself was not able to share her story of her assault with anyone for 11 years.

To help change these ingrained attitudes, Smith began modifying service models from mainstream domestic and sexual violence agencies to meet the cultural needs of this unique population, leading to a successful ADWAS organization. As a result, momentum began to build about the needs of deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind victims, which earned Smith recognition from President William Clinton and organizations like the National Association of the Deaf.  Today, ADWAS has 22 centers nationwide, run by deaf people for deaf people, with an annual operating budget of nearly $1.9 million. Since its founding, ADWAS has served more than 2,250 clients. Smith recognized Gallaudet First Lady Vicki Hurwitz as one of the founders of an ADWAS sister organization in Rochester, N.Y., in 1988.

“I cannot imagine the world without Marilyn Smith,” said Johnson, who described her as a “loving, fearless activist.” Johnson has started “Dare to Utter,” an episodic monologue show for Deaf women, Deaf Blind and Hard of Hearing who survived domestic and sexual violence to share their stories, an important step in the healing process. A “Dare to Utter” presentation, sponsored by a DAWN, General Studies Requirement sexual violence class and Peer Health Advocate, will take place in November.
“We are proud to name Marilyn as one of our graduates,” said Department of Counseling Chair Kendra Smith after Marilyn Smith’s presentation. “She is such a generous person with her spirit and knowledge and with her pioneering efforts.”  Students who attended Smith’s presentation said they were inspired by her. “I did not realize how much struggle Smith had to set up ADWAS, and I’m fascinated with how the organization has been spread out throughout the country,” said Tia Stewart, ’17, who has a sister-in-law who works for DAWN. Taking note of Smith’s comment that no one needs a college degree to help victims, Courtney Nimersheim, ’15, said she wants to know where she can help deaf women in the local area.

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