When a woman is trying to leave an abusive relationship or unsafe domestic situation, shelters offer a safe space for her to stay and get back on her feet. But leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult for any woman.
According to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, a woman seeking help will be in and out of a shelter seven times on average, before leaving the relationship. For deaf individuals, that number doubles.
In Missouri, the Leadership through Education and Advocacy for the Deaf Institute is working to change that. Last month, L.E.A.D. began installing video phones in 25 shelters throughout the state to help address one of the biggest barriers for deaf individuals seeking help: language.
According to L.E.A.D. Executive Director Dr. Stephanie Logan, deaf victims of domestic violence are often more reliant on their abusive partners, who often are one of the few people in the victim's life who knows sign language.
And Logan said even basic safety protocols at shelters can be a challenge for deaf victims' domestic abuse. Most shelters have a buzzer with an intercom at their front door to screen who comes inside.
Deaf victims can't hear the shelter staff over the intercom and without a response over the intercom, the shelter staff is reluctant to go outside to find out who is there.
"Because they don't know if it's an abuser, they don't know who that person is and they can't communicate with them," Logan said.
The video phones can help with that and other problems of communication that prevent deaf victims from getting the help they need.
L.E.A.D. Clinical Services Coordinator Becky Beck said the video phones are similar to other video chats, "It's kind of like Skyping."
"The picture is very clear. It depends on a high speed internet connection."
But unlike Skype, these phones connect to interpreters who are fluent in both English and American Sign Language, to help deaf people communicate with shelter staff, advocates and family.
"We will be able to help them navigate with a shelter environment," Beck said. "They'll be able to use that video phone to call other people for support."
Beck said the video phones will also help L.E.A.D. gain easier access to deaf victims around the state, including in rural areas that normally take a long drive to reach.
Nationally, Dr. Logan said Missouri is the first state with a state-wide video program like this one. And she said the phones will help L.E.A.D. deliver more of its services.
"They could call us for a counseling appointment, they could call us for any kind of case management, advocacy, and so it really cuts down on travel and we can reach every county in Missouri," Logan said.