American Sign Language students at Sam Houston State University congregated in the Olson Auditorium on Tuesday night to better understand the domestic violence that occurs within the deaf community and learn how they can help.
Vonnie Basham, a social worker, therapist and member of the deaf community, gave a presentation to roughly 100 students and faculty members serving as a doorway into the very small, close-knit group known as the deaf community. The audience also included two ASL professors, two interpreters and Basham’s mother.
A native of Kansas, Basham was born into a family with deaf parents. She attended a school for the deaf in her home state before moving to Austin, where she and her family believed they would have access to better services and communication networks.
“When I was younger, people would stare at me and feel sorry for me and I could tell they felt uncomfortable when I tried communicating,” Basham said. “Now people seem more comfortable and I see more ASL students, like here, which is great and more schools offering it as a foreign language so that helps tremendously.”
After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in social work at Gallaudet, one of the most notable institutions exclusively for members of the deaf community, Basham went on to receive her Master’s degree in social work at Ohio State.
“Many hearing people don’t understand deaf culture,” Basham said. “Many people don’t understand that there even is a deaf culture. We do have a culture, we have behavior, customs—we have our own culture.”
Basham elaborated on the various kinds of abuse which occur in the deaf community including emotional abuse, isolation, economic abuse, issues with self-esteem, intimidation, manipulation of children and sexual abuse.
“The deaf community is extremely small,” Basham said. “It’s just like having a small town because everybody knows everybody’s business, so it’s very difficult to get help or to keep a secret.”
Basham was very interactive with the student audience asking their opinions on certain subjects and receiving feedback through interpretation. Basham explained that smaller, more rural towns are less accessible communication-wise for the deaf community.
“The hearing people in other small towns tend to not really understand the deaf and they don’t know what to do with the deaf—they really treat them like aliens,” Basham said. “So it’s very difficult for them and they’re extremely isolated and that happens very easily.”
Basham described several scenarios in which deaf people may have trouble reaching out for help or getting fair treatment due to what she refers to as “hearing privilege.” Some of these common situations included trying to communicate with police officers at the scene of an accident, battling for custody of a child in divorce court or trying to find refuge in homeless shelters.
“There’s a lot of barriers that they go through and numerous times that they’ve lost their faith with the community and with the community resources,” she said.
According to Basham, many deaf people lose their sense of privacy when trying to communicate with the hearing world because a two-way conversation becomes a three-some with the necessity of an interpreter.
“It’s not always easy and they can’t always just bring in an interpreter, they’re not necessarily on-call around the clock and you can’t just bring them in on a moment’s notice,” Basham said. “In the future, I tell students that maybe you can work with the deaf community or you can find something you really enjoy to make things more accessible to the deaf so they don’t always have to have an interpreter.”
Despite miscommunication between the hearing world and the deaf community, Basham said that technological advances have helped immensely in bridging the gap—especially when it comes to getting help in emergency situations.
“Technology is a lot better today and a lot of people have devices like smartphones where they can call 9-1-1 via text,” she said. “Video phones make it easy to call 9-1-1 and that also shows their address when they call, so in the past it was very difficult before we had that. If we had a pager, maybe the battery was dead. It was just hard to find a way to get emergency help like that but it is getting better and there is a better response to the deaf community for meeting their needs so it is better than it used to be a long time ago.”
Toward the end of the presentation, Basham had the students view a clip of the subtitled ASL movie “Till Domestic Violence do us Part” which, according to Basham, was one of the first movies to truly expose the problems that occur within the death community. Following the film, students used what Basham had taught them to point out the different types of domestic violence that was occurring throughout the storyline.
Upon conclusion, Basham encouraged students to take what they learn in their ASL classes and bring it to the real world in hopes of merging two worlds to become one.
“You can advocate when you work with agencies, courts, social security offices—anywhere you work, and educate them about needing communication accessibility for deaf people to meet their needs,” she said. “Even if you can’t sign, go on and try to write notes back and forth and try to communicate because I’ve seen a lot of deaf people who really appreciate your effort.”