Sexual assault victims who are deaf face higher rates of assault as well as have unique issues not encountered by the hearing. 

Arva Priola, Outreach Coordinator at the disAbility Resource Center in Fredericksburg reports that deaf women have a 10% higher rate of assault than hearing women.  And 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 found that, “Deaf people face specific barriers. It’s important to distinguish their experiences as sexual assault victims from other sexual assault victims.”

Obinna’s research found that when deaf people report sexual assault, they encounter stereotypes about being a sexual assault victim and being deaf.  It is well documented that survivors of sexually violent crimes report feelings of guilt and embarrassment because of the social stigma frequently attached to rape. The small and close-knit deaf community can contribute to hesitancy in reporting and the need to involve more people for interpretation and communication. 

The closeness of the deaf community can compromise a victim’s anonymity and erode privacy. In addition, as Obinna’s research 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.

An additional barrier specific to the deaf community to reporting can be a lack of awareness about deafness and deaf culture among hearing people and lack of resources within sexual assault centers.  This lack of recognizing deaf culture as a defined entity rather than a deficit contributes to centers and the community not focusing on developing appropriate programs and adequate response to victims of crime.   “Part of being in the deaf community is deaf culture,” Priola 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 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.

Today there are many more ways for the deaf community to communicate with the hearing community such as assistive listening devices, computer assisted real time transcription, interpreters, Virginia Relay, Voice Carry Over, Hearing Carry Over, IP Relay through your computer, chat rooms, video relay and texting.  For more information on how to communicate serve the Deaf Community, contact your local disAbility Resource Center. 

 If you know someone who has been sexually assaulted or abused, please contact the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault 540-371-1666


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, February 2006.

 Priola, A., Undertanding Communication for People with Hearing Loss. The Disability Resource Center. 2011.