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Deaf-REACH's HIV Prevention Program Speaks the Deaf Community's Language

November 25, 2013

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Is there anything else you'd like to add, either about Deaf-REACH, or deaf activism, or deaf HIV prevention, that we didn't cover?

I think that the deaf community is very small; it's very insular. A lot of deaf people don't want to go in for a test in the hearing community, because people will look at them and assume that they are participating in behaviors that would make them susceptible to HIV, or that they're promiscuous. When we test at, for example, Gallaudet University, we try to find a room. Our room is off to the side, down a hallway, randomly, and it's in a corner. So it does offer that confidential, comfortable environment. A lot of deaf people are paranoid that they are going to be viewed as either HIV positive or promiscuous, or one of these things, because they're getting the test.

We try to empower the community, get rid of the negative stigma and encourage everyone to get tested. For first-time testers, we give out a $10 Target gift card. During that time, we talk with them and make sure that they know: "Do you know what HIV is? How do you prevent it?" We go down the list and do a mini intervention with them, if they're not practicing safe sex; and go over with them: "Do you know the ways of transmitting HIV?" A lot of times, they don't.

I had one presentation where one female said that she didn't need a condom. She couldn't get HIV, because she took birth control. So it's really hard when there are all these misconceptions out there.

A lot of times, deaf people aren't inundated like hearing people are. They're not listening to the radio, and hearing all about HIV and AIDS constantly. Also, in the deaf community, only 10 percent of deaf people have deaf parents. So the other 90 have hearing parents. And 88 percent of that 90 don't learn how to sign.

That's a very small percentage of parents that are talking to their children about safe sex and HIV.


So there's a small percentage already of parents who are even talking to their kids in a language they understand. And then, out of that, there's probably just a subset of parents who want to talk to their kids about sex.

Right. I think there's also the medical model, where a lot of medical professionals still use deaf people as part of a disability group. And often, I've learned from disability studies conferences, that medical professionals don't view disabled people as sexual beings. They sort of assume they're not having sex, which is completely, obviously inaccurate. I've met clients that are very low functioning, and they're still having sex.

So it's dual-diagnosed and nobody's talking to them about it because they're assuming they're not doing it, which is a common misconception.

Do you see that people who come through Deaf-REACH are dealing with similar kinds of frustrations and barriers that many people who are differently abled also have, such as social isolation?

Because we're in D.C., there's not so much the cultural isolation, because there's the deaf community. I think it's more that people that come through are more concerned with other people in the community finding out their status. A lot of them leave the hearing community and become immersed in the deaf community -- because, "Wow, I can communicate freely. I don't have to struggle to read lips." Or, "I can get my point across."

They become immersed in the deaf community and then the last thing they want to do is become ostracized from the deaf community for revealing their status, since there is such a heavy negative stigma attached to HIV, still. I think by opening up the conversation and educating people: If you hug someone, you're not going to get HIV. These are things that we do discuss with them. Or we'll have shirts and once they realize the shirt says "HIV," they'll say "Oh, I don't want that." So it's kind of, well, why? Why wouldn't you want to support this?

Deaf senior citizens tend to be really resistant, but older adults are a group that's growing, in terms of HIV, with the advent of Viagra and no sex education in the school systems, especially for the deaf community. At first, they were kind of resistant, but then we say, "If not for you, then your children, your grandchildren. This is something that should be an open discussion, and shouldn't be private, and behind closed doors."

Especially with the videos, a lot of people that are in rural areas that wouldn't have access to information -- like, "How do I put on a condom?" -- and that don't want to ask, or don't know who to ask, or don't know the proper way. With women, we show them how to use a female condom.

We're trying to also empower females that, if you want to be abstinent, that's fine ... but sex is OK, and safe sex can be really sexy. It's not, "Oh, no; hold on; let me put on a condom." We try to really drill that in.

So, by putting up these videos and disseminating it, we're hoping that people that wouldn't normally be able to access this information are able to go on YouTube and type in "deaf" and Robert pops up. There he is, telling you how to use condoms, or telling you what HIV is.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for and

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.

Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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