After Maine shooting leaves Deaf community reeling, some call for more ASL interpreters, mental health support

Why it's "essential to recognize that the experiences of deaf individuals during mass shootings can ... be unique," say experts.

At a nighttime vigil in Maine, dozens of people sign: I love you.
People sign "I love you" at a vigil in Maine for the victims of last week's mass shooting in Lewiston, in which four deaf community members died. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Among the 18 people killed in the Lewiston, Maine, mass shooting rampage on Oct. 25 were four deaf men, making for what appears to be the worst mass shooting of deaf people in U.S. history.

It's a tragedy that has not only plunged the close-knit Deaf and hard of hearing community into deep grief in Maine but has also left it reeling on a national level, serving as a potent reminder of that population's needs and vulnerabilities in times of crisis.

"When a deaf person in the community is hurting, everyone feels the pain. When one person is affected, it ripples through all of us," Megan Erasmus, clinical therapist and CEO of National Deaf Therapy, tells Yahoo Life by email. "Our Deaf community is incredibly close-knit and interconnected. It's highly likely that, even across the country, we either personally know this person or are connected to someone who does. Our proximity to one another is intimate, and the impact is undeniably profound.

"As a result," she adds, "the impact of a tragedy can be more profound, as individuals may have personal connections with those affected. The loss can resonate deeply within the community, intensifying the trauma."

That's certainly been true, say many in the Deaf community, in the days since the massacre, in which the shooter gunned down people at a bowling alley and a bar (the latter of which is where nine deaf cornhole players had gathered for a tournament) before being found dead. It's prompted not only grief but anger and frustration — over a widespread lack of understanding about what it takes to make emergency warnings accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"It's essential to recognize that the experiences of deaf individuals during mass shootings or tragedies can indeed be unique and different from those of hearing individuals," says Erasmus, whose organization focuses on American Sign Language-accessible therapy and has offered free crisis counseling for anyone affected by the shooting in Maine.

Here, experts discuss what's lacking, what's needed and how it all can feel.

The importance of clear communication

"Like other mass shootings, this terrible tragedy has rocked all communities to its core — however, this one hits close to home for us," Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, tells Yahoo Life in an email.

"The Deaf communities are shaken up and are eager to find out the latest information — unfortunately, the news has not included the interpreters on camera," Rosenblum says. "This needs to change so that there is no further trauma to our communities."

ASL interpreters being on hand and on camera, and clearly visible at all times, for news broadcasts following emergencies is one of the main best practices called for in an NAD position statement on the topic of accessible emergency management. But it's not often heeded — something that's been tragically ironic with this particular shooting, in which Joshua Seal, who became well known as the ASL interpreter for COVID-19 pandemic briefings held by Maine officials, was among last week's victims.

It's so notable when an interpreter does get equal airtime, in fact, that Oscar winner Marlee Matlin made mention of it on Instagram over the weekend, praising both CNN and Maine Gov. Janet Mills, who hugged the interpreter, Regan Thibodeau, a friend and co-worker of Seal's, at the start of a press conference.

And closed-captioning, available on many televisions, is not enough, stresses psychologist Stephanie Logan, CEO of DeafLEAD, a national organization providing 24/7 crisis intervention, advocacy, case management, interpreting and mental health support services to victims of crime who are deaf and hard of hearing. "The most important thing to know and be aware of is that ASL is not English," she tells Yahoo Life through an interpreter. "ASL is its own language. So even when the captions are included, that is in English. ASL is not a written or a spoken language, and it needs an interpreter to produce it and be linguistically accurate."

Support in the wake of a tragedy

The lack of clear communication in these cases can lead to another source of distress: isolation. Says Erasmus, "One of the primary causes of PTSD is the inability to immediately process the situation. Unfortunately, deaf individuals may often experience a sense of isolation during and after the event due to the lack of accessible resources, support and communication. This hinders their ability to connect with others, seek help or access support services, further exacerbating feelings of trauma and distress."

Olivia Stein, DeafLEAD's director of videophone crisis line services, who uses the pronouns they/them, shares that they felt much of this even when connected indirectly to a recent mass shooting, where family members were present. "I did become withdrawn from the greater community because I felt like we were having to fight constantly," Stein says about the experience. "It's a battle every day to make sure that we are getting the communication access that we need or the resources that we need, or the help — just simply help — that we need. So for those who have experienced a loss occurring from a mass shooting, those who have witnessed an incident like that, I can only imagine that it would feel more isolating right now. People may feel more withdrawn."

That, combined with the lack of ASL interpreters on the news, they add, leaves the Deaf community "feeling even more left out. So, I think that that can and will impact the mental health to a greater degree than for their hearing peers."

It's why having access to mental health support and services is vital, notes Erasmus.

"Deaf individuals may encounter difficulties when accessing appropriate mental health support and services, as not all providers in their proximity are deaf or proficient in ASL, which can lead to delays in the healing process," she says, noting that the statistics "are alarming, with 60% of deaf individuals lacking access to mental health services and 90% of professionals unable to provide adequate support due to geographical limitations. Most deaf Americans live in mental health professional shortage areas, making it crucial for services like ours to exist."

How hearing individuals can help

Stein makes a plea for hearing individuals to not give up as a bystander trying to communicate with a deaf person needing help in a disaster situation.

"Don't leave the situation," they say. "Keep going. Try your best. Really invest three times as much effort in order to give that person the support that they need ... because if you reorient yourself to helping somebody else who's a little bit easier [to understand], then we're being left to the wayside to deal with ourselves. We do want to work with you, but of course we need you to be willing to face that barrier. Just like we face the barrier every day as deaf folks."

Logan adds that advocating in any way possible for more ASL interpreters is another way to lend support. "I would ask for advocacy from hearing communities when it comes to ... really having an interpreter visible on the screen ... so that the Deaf community has the same access to the information that everybody else does."