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Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services

November 21st, 2006

SEATTLE, WA – I realized this was a distinctly different place when the woman working the front desk, after buzzing me in, handed me a dry-erase board and pen. I quickly stopped talking for it was useless; she was deaf. (at right: my indecipherable penmanship)

My appointment was with Marylin Smith, the executive director of the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS). Founded in 1986, in Smith’s basement, the ADWAS model has been replicated in 14 other US cities and now resides in a newly-built, secure building which also houses “A Place of Our Own.” This shelter is celebrated as one-of-a-its kind; there are no other facilities providing transitional housing specifically for Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. (at left: Marylin Smith)

Hearing-based shelters, where there are no interpreters and no adaptive equipment, often leave Deaf and Deaf-Blind women isolated and unable to communicate. Unable to communicate, simply getting admitted to a hearing-shelter could prove so difficult a woman’s choices can come down to homelessness or living with their abuser.

I’ll admit my surprise when I was introduced to Marylin; I should have known but she too is deaf. While she can speak, it is heavily accented. As we moved upstairs through more locked doors I began to notice other things: rooms had ‘doorbells’ which flashed strobes; every desk had a lamp pointed straight at its user, a signal for the ‘phone’; instant messaging, email, and web cams were preferred communication tools; but most of all what I noticed was the silence. Papers rustled, keyboards clacked, and doors opened but there was no conversation save mine and the interpreter’s. (at right: Tamara Frijmersum during a meeting)

Through the interpreter, a position momentarily filled by the capital campaign coordinator, Marylin told me no residents were willing to be photographed. It was something I expected. It’s not only a safety consideration, but most people don’t jump at the opportunity to tell the media they’ve been abused. So the challenge was to tell as story about a building built for people we couldn’t show. (at left: cameras and double, locked doors help with security)

I chose the security system, the signing, the computer-based TTY national domestic violence hotline (routed through the hearing-based national hotline in Texas), glimpses of the residential facilities, and some portraits.

All-in-all I spent about two hours learning about another culture, a way of living life and communicating without sound, and making images of things I can’t make images of. Before I left I caught Smith telling a story to the young, deaf son of a co-worker. It was about dinosaurs and I was captivated. (at right: National hotline coordinator Jeannie Brown)

I can’t remember now if she was speaking as she signed or if the interpreter was translating; in a short time I had grown used to a new way of communicating. Smith’s imagery was vivid. Her forearm and hand became a brontosaurus, her whole body a triceratops, and in animated gestures she held me, the child, and the staff with rapt attention. (at left: ADWAS staffer Crystal Green in the residential area)

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