Monday, September 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Deaf victim blossoms into powerful advocate

Seattle Times staff reporter

Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services

The agency is located at 4738 11th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98105.

Phone numbers: Office: 206-726-0093 (TTY); FAX: 206-726-0017; 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-787-3224 (TTY); 24-hour Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Crisis Line: 206-236-3134.


She was asleep in her college dormitory room when the intruder entered through an unlocked door and raped her.

Despite the trauma of the assault, Marilyn Smith says the worst ordeal came when she reported the assault.

Police could not understand when Smith, who has been deaf since she was 6 years old, tried to communicate by sign language. And at the time — 1970 — authorities refused to treat the rape as a crime and didn't consider it a priority, Smith recalls.

The case was closed with no arrest.

Wounded more by the insensitivity of authorities, who treated the case like a social encounter that had gone awry, Smith says "something in me shut down." She left the university, vowing to someday "get even" with the people who refused to acknowledge her trauma by making sure no deaf woman would go through the same thing.

Years later, Smith made good on her vow. The Seattle woman channeled her anger into pushing for the rights of deaf victims of domestic violence, eventually becoming recognized as a national leader. But first she had to return to Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., school for deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing students, and earn a master's degree in social work.

In 1986, Smith started Seattle's Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services (ADWAS) in the basement of her Ravenna home. ADWAS has become a model for similar programs in 15 other states, funded by a U.S. Justice Department grant.

ADWAS provides parenting classes, referrals to safe housing, legal and medical advocacy, educational workshops, sexual-assault case management — things other domestic-violence groups also may provide. But the organization eliminates the communication barriers that often confront deaf victims, by hiring sign-language-trained people.

Two years ago, Smith, 54, won a $100,000 Ford Foundation "Leadership for a Changing World" award. The funds went to start A Place of Our Own, the nation's first shelter for deaf domestic-violence victims, which is scheduled to open in Seattle in the spring.

The shelter will house 19 women and their children for up to 24 months. It will be set up with TTY phones, sign-language-trained staff members and access to all the services for the deaf offered through ADWAS.

The shelter has been an idea of Smith's since the 1981 murder of a deaf woman in Seattle by the woman's abusive deaf husband. The husband's troubling behavior was known in the deaf community, but there were no shelters to deal with the woman's special needs.

Deaf women are especially vulnerable to crime, particularly domestic violence, because the communication systems — cellphones, telephones, calling for help or talking to others, or even being able to hear someone at the door — are not available to them. Because there are no shelters set up with TTY-accessible phones and other security measures to compensate for hearing loss, deaf domestic-violence victims often are more likely than other women to return to their abusers, Smith said.

At the time of the murder, there weren't even sign-language-trained interpreters working with police to assist deaf crime victims. And if a deaf victim's spouse could hear and speak, police often would believe his story over hers, Smith said.

Smith sought the help of Ginny NiCarthy, author and co-founder of Seattle Rape Relief, the first rape crisis center in the U.S. NiCarthy encouraged her to create a support group for abused deaf women.

Although she had many ideas, at the time Smith didn't realize she had the ability to put them into action or be a leader.

"She was so self-effacing then," NiCarthy said. But together they gathered the support of Smith's friends, and NiCarthy trained them in how to aid victims. ADWAS was born, and so was Smith's career as a crusader and fiery champion for the rights of deaf domestic-violence victims.

Isolated school years

Smith grew up in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood, the second of three children. Despite her hearing loss after a bout with meningitis, her parents kept their expectations for her high.

When she was in grade school, books were her regular companions and she prided herself on being allowed to check out Agatha Christie mysteries from the adult section of the Green Lake Library. Because she felt isolated from her peers in mainstream classrooms, her parents believed she needed to be with other deaf people at Gallaudet University.

Smith's world was transformed after she graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1969 and arrived at the university.

"It was the best day of my life," she said.

She learned sign language and with it discovered her "voice," communicating her thoughts and dreams with ease. She made friends and connected with others like her. "I found I could be entertaining and make people laugh," she said.

After long feeling "invisible," she found her college years a powerful experience.

Twelve years ago, Smith was keynote speaker at the national convention of Deaf Women United, in New Jersey. She wore her trademark bright lipstick ("Even on my worst days you will not see me without my lipstick") as with her hands she animatedly described ADWAS and its history. She was dynamic — a woman who was not only a spellbinding speaker but a leader and advocate for the deaf, said Vicki Hurwitz, who is also deaf and who was in the audience that day.

Afterward, Hurwitz invited Smith to give a presentation in New York. Both women ended up being elected to the association's board and became close friends.

Since then, Smith, now executive director of ADWAS, has continued to fight for the rights of the deaf.

• She received funding from the Justice Department and elsewhere to create ADWAS models in 15 other cities around the nation and to train deaf women in those areas.

• She successfully challenged sexual-abuse policies at a Washington state school for the deaf, where a sexual-assault victim attempted suicide after being forced to have a "reconciliation" talk with her attacker. A new superintendent was hired. The school began to take sexual-abuse allegations seriously.

• She sued Seattle, Pierce and Snohomish counties, insisting that sign-language interpreters be used whenever a deaf person is the victim of a crime. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with all agreeing to use 24-hour on-call interpreters.

• In 2003, she directed ADWAS' successful effort to contract with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to manage a round-the-clock Deaf Abused Hotline, accessible by TTY in all 50 states.

• Under her leadership, ADWAS has prospered, its financial base climbing from $4,000 to $900,000, its staff growing from one to 12 — nearly all of the workers deaf. Some 22,000 people have received education or training through ADWAS.

Bustling workplace

Smith's usually neat office — with wall plaques and photos marking her accomplishments — recently was a jumble of cardboard boxes heaped with files and opened bottles of San Pellegrino water. Her hands fluttered in animated conversation with a new business manager as they shifted boxes from one room to the other.

The ADWAS staff adores Smith, members say, because she not only pays them more than is common for nonprofits, but encourages them to nurture themselves. She sometimes entertains the staff at the home she shares with her longtime partner, Karen Bosley.

"Marilyn makes you feel so special," said Carol Brown, development director. Whether it's shown by the sandals she brought back for her staff after a trip to Hawaii or the way she listens to concerns, Smith knows her staffers' work is vital to the welfare of many and that "it's important not to burn out," Brown said.

Smith's own oasis is her house, filled with flowers, antiques, photos of a young deaf woman who was pregnant when Smith took her in a few years ago. Now Smith refers to the woman's chubby-faced baby as her grandchild.

While Smith's advocacy began with her own trauma, her mission has long ago moved beyond getting even. She said she has reached a point of contentment and delight — especially in the company of other deaf women.

"I love the wisdom that comes with age," she said. Then she paused and added with a grin, "But I'd prefer to have a new body to go with it."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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