After shootings, renewed pain for Maine’s deaf community
By Jenna Russell and Amanda Nierenberg
As residents across Maine sat riveted to their TVs on Oct. 27, waiting anxiously for updates on the search for a gunman who had killed 18 people, state officials opened their news briefing with a stern directive for the cameras in the room.
“For the consideration of the four Deaf victims and their families, we are requesting that the ASL interpreter is in all frames for language access,” Michael Sauschuck, the state’s public safety commissioner, said after a flurry of complaints from Deaf viewers about broadcasts cutting the interpreter out. “They are grieving and have a right to know the latest information.”
It was a stinging reminder of the heavy toll borne by Maine’s small Deaf community, which counted four of its own among the dead and three more among the 13 injured in the shootings Oct. 25 in Lewiston. And it reflected its ongoing fight for access and recognition, a struggle rooted in a history of trauma that, amid its pain, has fostered solidarity.
Closely connected by a shared language and culture, and a statewide web of social ties, many Deaf residents of Maine first met and forged friendships at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, on Mackworth Island near Portland, long the only public, residential school for Deaf students in the state and a beloved center of Deaf society.
But a dark chapter in school history has shaped its community, too. For decades, it was the site of unchecked physical and sexual abuse of students by several school leaders. After the abuse came to public light in the 1980s, it took decades for victims to receive compensation, state-funded counseling and a formal apology.
That trauma and subsequent battle for acknowledgment, said some community members, makes the pain felt now even harder to bear. And it is also one source of their closeness and strength, and their readiness to fight for one another, some said.
“It’s very special, and it’s hard to put into words what our community is like,” said Darleen Michalec, 45, a teacher who is Deaf and a close friend of some Deaf victims of the shootings. “We put aside our personal stuff and work together as hard as we can. We move as one, and we have each other’s backs.”
To those who experienced the school abuse and its aftermath, the trauma is not in the past, she said: “This community, many of us, are still living with it.”
Many members of the Deaf community consider their Deafness a source of pride and identity, not a disability, using a capital D to signal their affiliation. American Sign Language — often misunderstood as a literal translation of spoken English — is in fact its own distinct language, with a grammatical structure more like French than English and a vocabulary that includes facial expressions and body movements.
In Maine, residents grew familiar with its eloquence during the coronavirus pandemic, when Joshua Seal, an ASL interpreter, signed beside the state’s public health director at news briefings. Seal, 36, who became a well-known figure in the state, was among the four Deaf people killed in the shootings, along with his friends William Brackett, known as Billy, 48; Stephen Vozzella, 45; and Bryan MacFarlane, 41.
Lewiston’s losses have drawn gestures of support from the global Deaf community, whose Maine members believe this mass shooting to be the first with many Deaf victims. Roxanne Baker, 64, a Deaf teacher, activist and Baxter School board member, said the outreach reflects the collective spirit the group brings to suffering and hardship.
“We share the pain together,” she said in an interview, signing through an interpreter. “Even though it happens to specific people, it feels present to us all.”
For many in the Deaf community, who see their Deafness as a strength, traumatic events can be even more complicated to process: Some have spent years striving to cast off victimhood and outsiders’ view of them as weak or vulnerable.
Research has found that Deaf people are at higher risk of some types of violence and trauma, including information deprivation trauma, which can result from isolation. But studies also cite a strong Deaf cultural identity as a protective factor that cultivates resilience.
Megan Vozzella, 38, whose husband, a longtime mail carrier, was killed, said that she was raised to fight for what she needed. “I was never going to let anyone say I was ‘less than,’” she said in an interview Thursday, signing while Michalec, a close friend since their student days at the Baxter School, interpreted.
The same strain of determination ran through the lives of the Deaf victims. MacFarlane was the first Deaf person to earn a commercial driver’s license in Vermont, his family told Maine Public Radio, persisting when some driving schools would not accept him. Seal established Maine’s only summer camp for Deaf children two years ago, driven to create a refuge where they could meet and bond with others like them.
“He would say, ‘If you want it to be different, then change it,’” his wife, Elizabeth Seal, recalled in an interview the day after his death.
That tenacity of will, so prevalent in Maine’s Deaf community, was essential to its long struggle to force the state to reckon with the wrongs done at the Baxter School. An investigation by Maine’s attorney general in 1982 concluded that school administrators had abused students for years and that earlier reports of wrongdoing had been ignored. No charges were filed because the statute of limitations had expired, according to news reports at the time.
It was not until 2001 that state legislators established a fund to compensate victims, after a group of former students, emboldened by the growing victims’ rights movement nationwide, began to lobby strongly for accountability. Sen. Angus King, then Maine’s governor, eventually apologized to victims, and a farmhouse where some of the worst abuse had occurred was ordered burned to the ground a few years later.
The four Deaf men who died, and the three wounded, were at Schemengees Bar & Grille, where they played together in a weekly cornhole tournament. The Wednesday night matches drew a diverse crowd who got to know one another during “blind draws” with randomly assigned partners.
John Clavette, 47, played often and befriended the Deaf players. “We found ways to communicate,” he said.
Some have speculated that the Deaf victims may have been slower to react to the gunfire because they could not hear it. Vozzella and Michalec said that was unlikely; all had varying degrees of hearing loss, they said, and some could discern a sound as loud as gunshots.
Adding layers of complexity for Deaf survivors trying to make sense of the attack is the fact that the shooter, Robert R. Card II, 40, had hearing loss, his family told police, and had started wearing hearing aids in recent months.
Vozzella said she was waiting for more facts from the investigation. But she acknowledged her fear that the gunman may have targeted her husband and friends because they were Deaf.
Focused on caring for her daughter, who is 12, and leaning on the Deaf community, she said she intends to fight for a state ban on assault-style weapons like the one used to kill her husband.
Against a gun that lethal, no one stood a chance, whether they could hear or not, Vozzella said.
“It would not make any difference.”