23.03.2016 Silent Tears and Deaf Identity


On Friday, 18 March CBM co-sponsored an event linked to the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN in New York. I am very proud to have been involved as a presenter at this event that focused on women with disabilities. The event highlighted The Silent Tears Project and along with the Project and CBM, the event was co-hosted by the Australian Government and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The powerful Silent Tears multimedia exhibition was displayed for all who attended to experience.

Silent Tears is a multimedia exhibition created by internationally renowned photographer Belinda Mason and emerging artists Dieter Knierim, Margherita Coppolino and Denise Beckwith. The exhibition reveals the lived experience of 20 women with disabilities who were subjected to violence and women with disabilities who have acquired disability as a result of violence. Five of the participants presented their powerful stories at the event. Click here for details about this exhibition.

Alison Aggarwal, Australian Human Rights Commission chaired the event and other panelists included Stephanie Ortoleva, Esq., President, Women Enabled International; Dixie Lock-Gordon, Executive Officer, Mudgin-gal Aboriginal Corp.; and Denise Beckwith, Disability Consultant, Silent Tears.

The topic of the event centered on creating an inclusive, holistic, and sustainable approach while the recognizing intersections and diversity. Each panelist discussed a theme, which included Gender, Identity, Culture, Inclusion, and Disability.

I was asked to talk about identity, a topic very dear to me. Below is an adaptation of my presentation, which included research I conducted on Deaf women and domestic abuse in the United States.

Identity is a complex concept, which suggests sameness and is used to differentiate oneself from others and is the process of becoming and creating oneself.[1]

Intersectionality is a key concept in identity discussions and is particularly relevant to women with disabilities in the context of violence because women with disabilities (up to 20% of women globally have a disability [2]) compared to women without disabilities are 2 to 3 times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse, rape, of trafficking and in many countries, are at risk of being institutionalized against their consent with little to no recourse. [3]

Collective identity, which is important for Deaf and disability movements, is about interactive group formations of a shared definition and the process of becoming a member by achieving recognition as an equal.[4] [5]

The following section focuses on Deaf identity as something that I have extensively researched.

Collectivity and unity create the core of Deaf identity.[6] Deaf identity stems from a common sign language, common values, storytelling, teaching each other, shared oppression, resistance and leadership, as well as residential schools, athletic and political organizations, and artistic and humoristic expression. Perhaps the most essential characteristics include self-identification as part of the community along with community acceptance and the use of sign language. [7] [8] [9] [10]

Deaf identity, although found globally in Deaf communities, it may have emerged or be emerging differently. In Uruguay, for example, I found in my research that there is a growing sense of identity and consequently sparking individual and collective empowerment. Deaf identity primarily emerged from the adoption of the 2001 Law 17.378 for Deaf persons that officially recognizes Uruguayan Sign Language (LSU) as a national language and also ensures the access to public services in LSU. [11]

Development of self and group identity as a Deaf person is often a longer process than other groups since globally approximately 90% of deaf people have hearing parents hence transmission of Deaf culture and sign language is delayed (an acquired culture) and is learned from peers, such as in educational settings. [12]

Continue reading about findings from research that I conducted some years ago in graduate school on domestic violence against Deaf women in the United States and the unique barriers these women encounter.

  • Deaf women may have difficulty disclosing the abuse and asking for assistance due to communication barriers, such as lack of access to qualified interpreters and equal access to services. This often impedes the recovery process and increases the chance of the deaf woman returning to the abuser If there is no or limited access to communication, the victim is re-victimized by having to repeat the abusive experience again and again.
  • Another barrier for deaf victims is the lack of Deaf awareness in the criminal justice system.
  • And tying back to collective identity, a unique barrier for Deaf women is that often it is difficult to create a new life because the Deaf community is much smaller than mainstream society and as a result the deaf women cannot as easily leave the Deaf community and begin a new life.

Below are four recommendations on how to create an inclusive, sustainable and holistic approach while recognizing diversity:

  1. Ensuring that all women and girls with disabilities are included in programs on the elimination of violence against women and girls and that these programs are fully inclusive, including the use of sign language, as well as taking into account all different types disabilities and the intersecting and diverse identities within them.
  2. Understanding that the concept of disability and Deaf identities can be collective stemming from close-knit communities and as a result privacy and confidentiality concerns need to be sensitively addressed.
  3. Acknowledging that the rate of violence against all women with disabilities is much higher than women without disabilities and yet at the same time is a group all too often neglected and excluded from gender-based policies.
  4. Focusing on creating a feasible way for Deaf survivors to stay in the community with healthy and safe supports.

Thank you to all the courageous women who shared their stories! I am truly touched and honored to have been part of this event.

Additional information
Five Perspectives on Gender Equality

SDG 5: Gender equality and Disability Inclusive Development in the SDGs

Rights to women and girls with disabilities to education


[1] Melucci, A. (1995). The Process of Collective Identity. In H. Johnston & B. Klandermans (Eds.), Social Movements and Culture (pp. 41-63). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[2] Heinicke-Motsch, K. & Sygall, S. (2004). Building an Inclusive Disability Community: A manual on including people with a disability in international development projects. Mobility International USA.

[3] Department for International Development [DFID]. (2000). Disability, Poverty and Development. Retrieved from http://handicap-international.fr/bibliographie-handicap/4PolitiqueHandicap/hand_pauvrete/DFID_disability.pdf

[4] Breivik, J. (2005). Deaf Identities in the Making: Local Lives, Transnational Connections. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

[5] Melucci, A. (1995). The Process of Collective Identity. In H. Johnston & B. Klandermans (Eds.), Social Movements and Culture (pp. 41-63). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[6] Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

[7] Lane, H., Hoffmeister, R., & Bahan, B. (1996). A Journey into the DEAF-WORLD. San Diego: DawnSignPress.

[8] Padden, C., & Humphries, T. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[9] Padden, C., & Humphries, T. (2005). Inside Deaf Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[10] Woodward, J. (1989). How You Gonna Get to Heaven If You Can’t Talk with Jesus?: The Educational Establishment vs. the Deaf Community. In S. Wilcox (Ed.), American Deaf Culture (pp. 163-172). Burtonsville, Maryland: Linstok Press.

[11] Lockwood, E. M. (October 2014). Effective Deaf Action in the Deaf Community in Uruguay. In, H. Dirksen L. Bauman & J. J. Murray (Eds.), Deaf-Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[12] Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.