After Lewiston Shooting, Maine’s Deaf Community Seeks to Rise Above, Again

As Maine residents sat in front of their televisions on Oct. 27, anxiously awaiting updates on the search for a gunman who had killed 18 people, state officials opened their news conference with a stern directive for cameras in the hall.

“For the consideration of the four deaf victims and their families, we are requesting that the ASL interpreter be in all language access settings,” said Michael Sauschuck, the state’s public safety commissioner, after a flood of complaints from deaf viewers about broadcast cuts. the interpreter outside. “They are grieving and have the right to know the latest information.”

It was a painful 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 wounded in the Oct. 25 shooting in Lewiston. And he reflected his continued struggle for access and recognition, a struggle rooted in a history of trauma that, amidst his pain, has fostered solidarity.

Closely connected by a shared language and culture and a statewide network of social ties, many deaf Maine residents met and forged friendships at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island near Portland, long the only public residential school for the deaf. Deaf students in the state and a beloved center of the deaf society.

But a dark chapter in the school’s history has also shaped its community. For decades, it was the scene of uncontrolled physical and sexual abuse against students by various school leaders. After the abuse came to light in the 1980s, it took decades for victims to receive compensation, state-funded counseling and a formal apology.

That trauma and the subsequent battle for recognition, some community members said, make the pain now felt even harder to bear. And it’s also a source of their closeness and strength, and their willingness to fight for each other, some said.

“It’s very special and it’s hard to put into words what our community is like,” said Darleen Michalec, 45, a deaf teacher and close friend of some deaf victims of the shootings. “We put aside our personal things and work together as hard as we can. “We move as one and support each other.”

For those who experienced school abuse and its consequences, the trauma is not a thing of the past, he said: “This community, many of us, are still living with it.”

Many members of the deaf community consider their deafness to be a source of pride and identity, not a disability, and use a capital D to indicate their affiliation. American Sign Language, often misinterpreted as a literal translation of spoken English. It is in fact its own distinctive languagewith a grammatical structure more similar to French than English and a vocabulary that includes facial expressions and body movements.

In Maine, residents became familiar with his eloquence during the coronavirus pandemic, when Joshua Seal, an ASL interpreter, signed on next door. state public health director in press conferences. Seal, 36, who became a well-known figure in the state, was among four deaf people killed in the shooting, along with his friends William Brackett, known as Billy, 48; Stephen Vozzella, 45 years old; and Bryan MacFarlane, 41.

The Lewiston losses have drawn gestures of support from the global deaf community, whose Maine members believe this mass shooting is the first with numerous deaf victims. Roxanne Baker, 64, a deaf teacher, activist and Baxter School board member, said the campaign reflects the collective spirit the group brings to suffering and hardship.

“We share the pain together,” he said in an interview, signing through an interpreter. “Even though it happens to specific people, it feels present to all of us.”

For many members of the deaf community, who see their deafness as a strength, traumatic events can be even more complicated to process: some have spent years struggling to dismiss victimhood and strangers’ views of them as weak or vulnerable.

Research has found that deaf people are at increased risk for 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 she was raised to fight for what she needed. “She was never going to let anyone say she was ‘less than,’” she said in an interview Thursday, signing as Michalec, a close friend of hers since her student days at the Baxter School, interpreted.

The same tension of determination ran through the lives of the deaf victims. Mr. MacFarlane was the first deaf person to obtain a commercial driver’s license in Vermont. his family told Maine Public Radio, persisting when some driving schools did not accept it. Mr. Seal established the only summer camp for deaf children in Maine two years ago, with the goal of creating a haven where they could meet and bond with others like themselves.

“He said, ‘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 their long fight to force the state to take responsibility for the mistakes committed at the Baxter School. A Maine Attorney General investigation in 1982 concluded that school administrators had abused students for years and that previous reports of wrongdoing had been ignored. No charges were filed because the statute of limitations had expired, according to press reports at the time.

It was not until 2001 that state legislators created a fund to compensate victims, after a group of alumni, emboldened by the growing victims’ rights movement across the country, began pushing hard for accountability. Senator Angus King, then governor of Maine, eventually apologized to the victims and ordered the construction of a farm where some of the worst abuse had occurred. burned to the ground A few years later.

Progress did not come without more trauma: One of the first abuse victims to come forward, James Levier, 60, was shot and killed by police in Maine in 2001 in an apparent “suicide by cop.” despondent after losing hope that the State would do the right thing with the victims.

“Without your brave testimony, we would not have begun this journey,” the legislative leaders said. wrote in a report in 2000, recognizing the victims. “You and your families have suffered what no person should suffer, and somehow you have found the strength to tell your stories, demand redress, and begin a process to ensure that the abuse of vulnerable children never happens again.”

Determined to get their beloved school community back on its feet, alumni fought to make it safer. The Baxter School still serves hundreds of students in an on-site preschool and in satellite programs in public schools where deaf students are integrated.

Sharon Anglin Treat, a former state legislator and compensation committee leader, recalled how deaf constituents took advantage of her success.

“Over time, they became more and more comfortable with the legislative process and advocating for themselves,” he said.

Out of necessity, their fight has continued. Just a few months ago, the defenders intervened in the state budget process to ensure free advising for alumni continues.

When Ms. Treat learned that deaf people were among the victims of the Lewiston shooting, “it seemed to me,” she said, “like another assault on the community.”

The four deaf men who died and the three who were injured were at Schemengees Bar & Grille, where they were playing together in a weekly cornhole tournament. Wednesday night’s matches attracted a diverse crowd of people who met during “blind draws” with randomly assigned partners.

John Clavette, 47, played frequently and became friends with deaf players. “We found ways to communicate,” he said.

Some have speculated that the deaf victims may have reacted more slowly to the gunshots because they could not hear them. Ms. Vozzella and Ms. Michalec said that was unlikely; They all had varying degrees of hearing loss, they said, and some could discern a sound as loud as a gunshot.

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 begun wearing hearing aids in the last months.

Vozzella said he was waiting for more data to emerge from the investigation. But she acknowledged her fear that the gunman had targeted her husband and her friends because they were deaf.

Focused on caring for her 12-year-old daughter and leaning on the deaf community around her, she said she hopes the road ahead takes her to the Legislature, where she intends to fight for a ban on assault weapons like she used to kill her husband.

Against such a lethal weapon, no one stood a chance, whether they could hear or not, Ms. Vozzella said.

“It wouldn’t make any difference.”

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