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December 6, 2003

The power of one

From: Portsmouth Herald, NH - Dec 6, 2003

By Melanie Asmar

Sabrina Dennison is no stranger to silence. Born deaf, Dennison, 35, is also well acquainted with the power of communication. And now, 23 years after she was sexually assaulted by a group of boys, she wants to use that power, with the help of Portsmouth’s Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS), to encourage other victims to speak up.

"I want to tell people not to keep silent," said Dennison through an interpreter. "I want to let them know that it’s OK to tell."

Dennison’s story is hard to listen to, but it’s made easier by the strength with which she tells it. When she was a 13-year-old Portsmouth Middle School student, a boy she had a crush on asked her to skip school the next day.

"It was a Tuesday," said Dennison. "I remember it clearly."

She said that she had never skipped school before, but that she liked this boy so much, she would have done anything. He promised her that there would be other girls there.

"He lied," said Dennison. "There were no other girls there. That destroyed me."

It was a gang rape, she said, and it involved an older man who did not touch her, but acted as an enabler for the other boys.

After it was over, she told no one. She didn’t want to tell her mother because she had skipped school. She didn’t want to report it to the police because all the officers she knew were men, and she felt uncomfortable describing such a personal situation. There was nowhere like SASS to turn to, she said.

"I had no idea where to go for help," said Dennison. "I was shocked. It was a violation of my body, and there was nothing available."

Dennison lived alone with the memory of the assault and a resulting case of post-traumatic stress disorder until she sought help last year. Her breakthrough came when she saw a sticker for SASS on the back of a bathroom stall door at the University of New Hampshire, where she teaches a course in sign language. She called the SASS hotline and was routed through a national call center that allows deaf people to communicate over the telephone by typing. Dennison said that her first contact with SASS was overwhelming.

"It was the first opening of the wound," Dennison said. "I had been feeling like it (the assault) was happening all over again, and I knew I needed help. Seeing that sticker was fate, and I’m grateful."

Soon after, she joined a SASS support group called Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. SASS also offers other support groups for adult and teen survivors of sexual violence, as well as for nonoffending parents and partners. The organization also offers a 24-hour hotline, as well as 24-hour accompaniment and support for victims at hospital emergency rooms, police stations, the Child Advocacy Center and throughout court proceedings. SASS also provides referrals, professional training and prevention education services. A year later, Dennison still attends support groups and art-therapy sessions, which have slowly helped her to heal.

"SASS made my experience into a more positive one, if that can be imagined," Dennison said.

"I know now that I’m not a victim; I’m a survivor."

But as SASS’s first deaf client, there were hurdles that both Dennison and the SASS staff had to overcome.

"Sabrina was the first deaf client that we had ongoing contact with," said Nancy Normile, the director of community outreach for SASS. "We knew peripherally that there were deaf survivors, but Sabrina was concrete and real."

For deaf clients, a big obstacle is the initial contact, Normile said. For example, in addition to worrying about telling her story, Dennison had to think about her interpreter. She said she had to make sure the interpreter she chose would be comfortable saying and hearing words associated with rape. Deaf people must also trust in their interpreter to keep all information confidential, Dennison said.

"I chose to use my own interpreter because I’m comfortable with her and, obviously I wanted a woman," Dennison said.

If deaf people do not have their own interpreters, any office associated with the American Psychological Association is responsible for hiring one, Normile said.

"Now thanks to Sabrina, if a deaf person comes to us, we know how to call and arrange for an interpreter, or use a TTY (a text telephone)," Normile said.

SASS recently purchased their own TTY machine, which looks like a little typewriter with a screen and pads on top to cradle the phone’s receiver. A deaf person with access to a TTY can now type directly to a SASS worker, whose TTY is connected to the 24-hour hotline. SASS has effectively cut out the middleman and has simplified a process that was once long and complicated.

"I’ve hopefully opened doors for future deaf women, girls and men," said Dennison, who said she is very proud and excited about SASS’s TTY.

Normile said that SASS now has a system in place to deal with deaf clients and is prepared to meet the challenges head on.

"Sabrina was our guinea pig," Normile said. "But she got lots of carrots."

As for being the guinea pig, Dennison said she didn’t mind at all.

"The interpreter situation was a little difficult, but other than that, I’ve had no bad experiences here," she said. "They’ve gotten me as far as I am."

Dennison has come a long way, considering that she now works as an educational assistant at Portsmouth Middle School.

"I see the kids at work every day and I can’t imagine myself at that age again," Dennison said. "I want them to know that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted. No one deserves that kind of treatment. But just in case, I want them to know about the great support system that is available to them."

As for deaf survivors seeking help, Dennison advises them to stick with it.

"You can see the light if you have patience," she said. "I feel comfortable and safe now. And safe is the most important word."

Contact info: Portsmouth Sexual Assault Services free and confidential hotline: 800-747-7070. Web site: Address: 7 Jenkins Ave., Portsmouth. Phone number: 436-4017

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