Understanding intimate partner violence involving the deaf population

Mastrocinque, J.M., Cerulli, C. Thew, D., Chin, N.P., & Pollard, R.Q. (2020)

Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 1 – 23

Type of Profession:

This study explored the social context of interpersonal violence (IPV) perpetration involving the deaf population through interviews with deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals who self-identified as perpetrating either physical or sexual abuse in an intimate relationship where at least one partner was deaf. Findings were compared with IPV trends in the general (hearing) population, and prompt concerns that universal IPV interventions may not effectively address the needs of the deaf population. Recommendations for diversifying screening efforts, modifying screening tools, and tailoring interventions to better address IPV involving deaf and hard-of-hearing populations is discussed in the article.

Expanded Abstract: 

Studies examining the deaf population and IPV note deaf victims experience diverse types of IPV, including communication or technological abuse (Mastrocinque et al., 2017; Southworth et al., 2007), physical abuse (Mastrocinque et al., 2017), emotional abuse (Pollard et al., 2014), sexual abuse (Mastrocinque et al., 2017; Pollard et al., 2014), and financial abuse (Mastrocinque et al., 2017). Related studies with college students support that being deaf or hard-of-hearing increases the chance of psychological and physical abuse (Anderson & Leigh, 2011; Porter & McQuiller Williams, 2011a, 2011b) as well as sexual abuse (Anderson & Leigh, 2011). Such work includes the concern that female undergraduates are not properly identifying certain behaviors as abusive, criminal, or IPV (M. Anderson, 2014; M. L. Anderson & Kobek Pezzarossi, 2012; Smith & Pick, 2015). There is also an increased risk for victimization in institutions, including schools for the deaf (Kvam, 2004; Schrӧttle & Glammeier, 2013). When IPV does affect the deaf population, consequences include mental health effects and the need for medical attention (Mastrocinque et al., 2017).

Risk factors for IPV in the deaf population include communication barriers which can lead to abuse in both intimate and parent–child relationships (Anderson & Kobek Pezzarossi, 2014; Durity et al., 2004; Knutson et al., 2004). While research exists regarding the inter-generational transmission of violence in the general population, limited research explores this issue in the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, except for one study of college students stating that witnessing or experiencing abuse did not correlate with perpetrating physical violence (McQuiller Williams & Porter, 2015). It is important that IPV research involving the deaf population use culturally and linguistically appropriate measures. For example, the Power and Control Wheel used to identify IPV (National Center on Domestic Sexual Violence, n.d.) was modified for deaf populations to better communicate about IPV in this unique linguistic and cultural minority group (DeafHope, 2006). Researchers have administered surveys to estimate prevalence rates and the effects of IPV with survey instruments created by and for hearing populations. While some epidemiological research has been conducted with deaf populations, such studies have yet to fully explore IPV involving deaf persons through interviewing those who perpetrate violence.

The study found that a third of participants were female perpetrators with male victims and most of the relationships had bidirectional violence. Approximately half of the relationships resulted in injuries and partners rarely sought medical attention. Childhood abuse histories were extremely prevalent in our sample, including abuse by many different people. Perpetrators commonly discussed victims’ mental health issues, substance abuse, children from previous relationships, and lack of family support. Because IPV centers on controlling a person, which many participants knowingly did, it seems intentionally targeting a person with perceived vulnerabilities is consistent for hearing (Cattaneo & Goodman, 2005) and deaf perpetrators alike.

Findings from the study also included several themes. First, it is common for deaf persons to manifest deficits in “fund of information” due to lack of access to information via radio, TV and movie soundtracks, “overheard” conversations (including within the family), and limitations in English literacy (see Hauser et al., 2010). Another theme was frustration from communication barriers, an experience often prevalent during childhood. Many participants discussed challenges in help-seeking, including families discouraging the couple to contact help, namely, the police.