Study Reveals Unique Issues Faced by Deaf Victims of Sexual Assault
by Lauren R. Taylor with Nicole Gaskin-Laniyan, Ph.D.
About the Authors
Ms. Taylor is a freelance writer. Dr. Gaskin-Laniyan is a social
science analyst at the National Institute of Justice.
Sexual assault victims who are deaf face unique issues not
encountered by the hearing, according to a recent study
funded by the National Institute of Justice. Researcher Jennifer Obinna and
colleagues at the Minneapolis Council on Crime and Justice
interviewed 51 deaf citizens, 15 service providers (both deaf
and hearing), and 10 police officers in their investigation
of the impact of sexual assault on members of the deaf
community. In their
final report on the project, the researchers offered
recommendations for improving the relationship between law
enforcement and the deaf community.
“Deaf people face specific barriers,”
said Obinna, the lead researcher on the
project. “It’s important to distinguish their
experiences as sexual assault victims from
other sexual assault victims.”
Obinna noted, for example, that when deaf
people report sexual assault, they encounter
stereotypes about being a sexual assault
victim and being deaf. Rape victims often
have feelings of guilt and embarrassment
because of the social stigma frequently
attached to rape. These feelings can be
compounded due to the small and generally
close-knit nature of the deaf community,
which, said the researchers, can contribute
to a hesitancy to report a sexual assault.
The closeness of the deaf community can
compromise a victim’s anonymity and erode
privacy. In addition, the researchers found,
many deaf victims of sexual assault perceive
a lack of support within the deaf community,
particularly if the perpetrator is also deaf.
Consequently, deaf victims can experience
a profound sense of isolation.
The researchers found that another impediment
to deaf victims seeking help is a lack
of awareness about deafness and deaf
culture among hearing people. Many view
deafness from a medical perspective,
focusing on hearing deficits rather than
viewing deaf people as members of a
linguistic and cultural community. In fact,
the researchers found that many of the deaf
women interviewed do not view themselves
as disabled, but rather as having a culture
and way of communicating not recognized
by the dominant hearing culture.
Recognizing Deaf Culture
“Part of being in the deaf community is
deaf culture,” Obinna says. “We can’t
always make assumptions about how a
particular culture experiences violence.
Even though the experience and many of
the reactions are similar, there are cultural
differences that service providers and law
enforcement must pay attention to. Making
decisions about who to tell—or even whether
to tell—is all filtered through a cultural lens.”
Many hearing people do not know how to
initiate a conversation with a deaf person,
which can make encounters awkward and
frustrating and can contribute to a hesitancy
among deaf sexual assault victims
to reach out for help. Also, interpretations
between American Sign Language (ASL)
and English are inherently imperfect. Finally,
the researchers point out that victims may
have different communication styles: some
lip-read and write; others are more comfortable
with ASL; still others may have minimal
language skills, which requires communication
to be more visual or tactile.
Many deaf victims may be reluctant to reach
out to agencies that serve sexual assault
victims because most of the providers are
hearing and do not have systems for effectively
communicating with deaf people. For
example, deaf sexual assault victims cannot
count on service agencies having access
to a TTY (teletypewriter), much less a staff
member who knows how to operate it.
Even if a social service or law enforcement
agency has an interpreter, deaf victims, like
hearing victims, may be reluctant to divulge
intimate details to yet another stranger.
Some deaf victims of sexual assault also
believe they cannot rely on interpreters to
accurately represent their words and experiences.
Service agencies that do not have
qualified interpreters on site often use the
victim’s family or friends to assist in interviews,
which can further inhibit a sexual
assault victim’s candor.
(See sidebar, “Using the ‘PAR’ Method.”)
Improving Police Response
Victims who were interviewed in the
Minneapolis study had varied opinions
on how helpful police could be after a sexual
assault. Although most said they regarded
law enforcement as a resource, few had
actually called the police after they were
victimized. Many related frustrating
experiences when dealing with the police
department, including 911 call-takers who
could not operate a TTY machine and police
officers who mislabeled a deaf person as
drunk or mentally ill or who misread body
language as aggressive when a deaf person
was simply moving closer to lip-read.
Service providers and deaf community
members agreed that law enforcement
must improve its methods for communicating
with the deaf community, whether
they are victims, witnesses, or suspects.
They also suggested that police officers
need training, interpreters, and more clearly
defined agency policies. For example,
although this research project revealed
that the Minneapolis Police Department
has policies for locating an interpreter,
its officers know very little about how
to identify if a person is deaf or how to
communicate with him or her in the field.
Despite these challenges, the researchers
regard the Minneapolis Police Department
as a model for other jurisdictions when it
comes to serving the deaf community. The
researchers cited the department’s “Crime
Prevention and Safety for People Who Are
Deaf” program as fostering communication
between law enforcement and deaf citizens.
This community policing program is based
on the premise that the deaf community is
not identified by geography, but by a distinct
language and culture. The program covers
a variety of crime and safety issues for the
deaf community and for families, churches,
businesses, nonprofit organizations, and
State and local agencies, including a 10-week
course on ASL for police officers.
The researchers offer other suggestions
for improving the relationship between
law enforcement and the deaf community,
- Revising police report forms to include
a category to track interactions with
members of the deaf community.
- Developing the capability for querying
databases to identify cases involving
- Putting TTY links on police department
outreach materials and Web sites.
- Training dispatchers on TTY protocols
Although more research is needed to
help policymakers and service providers
meet the needs of deaf people—the
researchers note, for example, that sexual
abuse at residential deaf schools must be
addressed—the findings of this study should
lead to a greater understanding of how
law enforcement and other service providers
can better address the needs of deaf
people who have been sexually assaulted.
Understanding deaf victims’ perspectives on
sexual assault, their help-seeking patterns,
and the gaps in services is vital to improving
the community response to sexual violence.
USING THE ‘PAR’ METHOD
Jennifer Obinna and her colleagues at Minneapolis’ Council on Crime and Justice
used the Participatory Action Research (PAR) method to recruit deaf participants
into the study. Using PAR, the hearing-dominated team of researchers collaborated
with deaf people to connect with deaf community members. The researchers
reported great success in using the PAR model, attributing the success to
several factors, including the participation of an advisory group with a diverse
membership of law enforcement officials, hospital workers, and deaf and
hearing service providers. Using the PAR model, they also recruited and trained
deaf interviewers and a hearing interpreter and used a videotaped consent form
and scenario-based interviews.
Return to text
 Obinna, J., S. Krueger, C. Osterbaan, J.M.
Sadusky, and W. DeVore, Understanding
the Needs of the Victims of Sexual Assault in
the Deaf Community, final report submitted to
the National Institute of Justice, Washington,
DC: February 2006 (NCJ 212867), available at
 Editor’s Note:
Within the deaf population in this country, there
is a community that strongly identifies itself from
a cultural—as opposed to a medical—perspective;
this community uses a capital “D” when referring
to the Deaf community. Nevertheless, in an effort
to minimize any sense of exclusion among deaf citizens
who do not identify as part of the Deaf community,
this article uses “deaf” to embrace all deaf people.