Program Profile

Impact Impact Feature Issue on Violence Against Women with Developmental or Other Disabilities

Supporting Deaf Women in Seattle: Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services


Marilyn J. Smith  is Executive Director of ADWAS, Seattle. She may be reached by e-mail at

The roots of the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) stem from the brutal murder of a Deaf woman by her Deaf husband in 1981 in Seattle, Washington. Many people in the community were aware of the woman’s abusive marriage, but felt helpless to intervene or offer her support. At that time, we were running a support group for Deaf domestic violence victims/survivors. After the death, we realized that accessible and culturally relevant services were needed for Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims of sexual assault and domestic violence – hearing organizations were not able to serve these populations effectively. We called together female Deaf community leaders and mothers of Deaf children to discuss how the community could support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. They all agreed that a Deaf-run organization should be established, and ADWAS was founded in 1986.

We began educating the Deaf community and providing 24-hour crisis intervention, counseling, and medical and legal advocacy. Over the past 15 years, ADWAS has methodically expanded its services, providing direct services to over 600 victims/survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and educating over 15,000 hearing and Deaf/Deaf-Blind people. Every Deaf magazine and newspaper has featured articles about ADWAS, and the organization has received numerous local and national awards.

ADWAS’ philosophy guiding all its work is to honor the language and culture of Deaf and Deaf-Blind people. We believe that it is very empowering for victims/survivors to see their own people in control of ADWAS. Our existence shows that we can be successful as Deaf and Deaf-Blind people. Because Deaf people run the agency, women who come to us for services don’t have to deal with teaching us about communication, community dynamics, and Deaf cultural rules, and a third person, the interpreter, doesn’t have to be used for communication. When the Washington State Relay Service opened, we stopped accepting incoming voice calls. This was for both practical and political reasons. Practical because more than half the staff is Deaf and doesn’t want to depend on hearing people to answer phone calls; and political because it sends a message to Deaf and Deaf-Blind people that they come FIRST. And it was both political and practical in relation to hearing people who need to accept the fact that real diversity comes only when they sometimes do things our way.

However, we do not work in isolation. ADWAS is a member of many coalitions and our staff are active in local and state domestic violence and sexual assault committees. We also work with hearing domestic violence and sexual assault agencies, especially those outside of our service area, helping them to serve Deaf and Deaf-Blind women in their communities. (We encourage all agencies to refer Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims/survivors to us, but many times they are unable to travel to Seattle).

The heart of the ADWAS program is the 24-hour crisis line run by volunteer advocates. The primary job of advocates is to provide crisis intervention services, which may mean meeting a rape or domestic violence victim at the hospital and supporting her through the initial medical exam, then explaining her options for reporting to the police; and, for domestic violence victims, it may mean explaining her housing options. Our services include crisis intervention, medical and legal advocacy, therapy, support groups, safe homes, a specialized children’s program, a positive parenting program, community education, professional training, and training to replicate our model in 15 Deaf communities around the United States.

Our most extensive expansion was the Justice for Deaf Victims national training program, which began in 1998 with a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. For 12 years ADWAS had been the only agency in the United States that provides fully accessible services to Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims/survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. The staff and board wanted to change this situation so that more Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims received the help and support needed. Each year of the project, ADWAS selected five Deaf communities to take the national training. There are now 15 communities that have gone through training; eight are providing some services and all of them will eventually provide the full range of services. The trained communities are Boston; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Austin, Texas; San Francisco/Bay Area; Rochester, New York; Des Moines; Chicago; Metro Washington, D.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Detroit; Salt Lake City; Honolulu; Philadelphia; and Burlington, Vermont. This fall the first meeting of the newly formed national coalition of ADWAS and the 15 communities convened. The coalition will continue and provide training and support to others for years to come.

ADWAS’ newest project is developing transitional housing for Deaf and Deaf-Blind survivors. A Place of Our Own is in its second year of planning, and a 15-unit apartment building with space for emergency shelter as well as offices is expected to open at the end of 2003. This, too, will be a model for other Deaf communities across America.