AUGUSTA, Maine — Poet Ian Sanborn’s latest work describes majestic New England wildlife — a bear, a moose, an eagle — brought to a stunned standstill by the deadly flashes of gunfire.
Sanborn, who is deaf, composed the poem in American Sign Language in the days after the mass shooting in Lewiston on Oct. 25 that killed 18, including four deaf men. It cannot be perfectly translated into English, or any other spoken language, the New Hampshire poet said; its meaning flows, in part, from the nuance of the signer’s hand movements.
It’s equally difficult, members of Maine’s deaf community said last week, to fully convey their experience of the tragedy. They lost one of just four deaf people in the state who were also certified ASL interpreters. And, in a tight-knit deaf community, where so many people are connected, they lost four beloved friends.
“It was an instant case of grief, and shock, sobbing,” said Clayton Marr III, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., but returned to Maine Saturday to grieve with the deaf community he’s been a part of since childhood.
His best friend, he said, was Joshua Seal, the interpreter who was killed.
Amid their grief, members of Maine’s deaf community also experienced a familiar frustration in the days since the shooting: exclusion.
In the hours immediately after the massacre, the state’s deaf population had trouble accessing basic information about the crimes and victims. American Sign Language interpreter Regan Thibodeau participated in news conferences that provided key updates on the investigation, but at times she was only partially in the camera frame, making it impossible to understand her interpretation.
Television’s closed captioning is no replacement for the clarity ASL provides, said Karen Hopkins, executive director of the Maine Education Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing/Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.
“It’s a totally separate syntax, language,” said Hopkins. “Trying to access that through a second language is not sufficient.”
Sarah Carter, who helped organize an informal gathering for grieving members of the deaf community Thursday at University of Maine at Augusta, described the outrage and confusion she and others felt in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
“We lost four members, four people from our community, and we don’t know what’s happening,” she said.
The deaths of Seal, Billy Brackett, Bryan MacFarlane, and Stephen Vozzella have also brought to light the profound connections within Maine’s deaf community, bonds rooted in shared language and, often, ties to the state’s nearly 150-year-old school for the deaf. Brackett, MacFarlane, and Seal all attended or graduated from the Baxter school, Hopkins said. Vozzella married a former student, she said.
About 70,600 people in Maine are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the US Census. The state’s school for the deaf now provides services for about 700 deaf and hard-of-hearing people from birth to 22 years old, Hopkins said. The school once had many students living on campus, she said, but now prioritizes keeping children with their families.
The four deaf victims were playing cornhole at Schemengees Bar & Grille restaurant when they died. In-person get-togethers like that are the lifeblood of the deaf community, said Marr, whose friends cherished outdoor activities and athletics. Seal was working to bring a national deaf disc golf tournament to Maine in 2025, he said.
Marr, 34, heard about the shooting from his home in Knoxville and immediately texted Seal, warning him to be careful. Hours later, he learned the extent of the tragedy.
“It has rocked the deaf community down to the core,” Marr said.
The importance of language to the community cannot be overstated. Marr described gatherings with his deaf friends that continued late into the night. When apart, he and his friends text or use Zoom, but there’s no substitute for seeing, in person, the emotion and personal style each person expresses with their hands. Touch, stamping the floor, hitting a table — it’s all part of communication that can only be expressed face to face, explained Marr, dean of student life at the Tennessee School for the Deaf.
Seal’s facility with sign language set him apart, Marr said.
“He became a very, very fluent, beautiful signer,” he said.
Matt Hughes, 42, another Baxter graduate who was friendly with the shooting victims, recalled the thrill of living in one of the school’s dormitories on Mackworth Island, in Falmouth, Maine, with other sign language users, including his classmate MacFarlane, with whom he shared a passion for fishing.
“That dorm is never quiet,” the Houlton, Maine, man recalled. “Lots of hands flying everywhere.”
Just over forty years ago, Maine’s attorney general’s office reported that hundreds of students at the school had been physically or sexually abused from the 1950′s to the 1970′s, according to reports from the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald. Victims and deaf advocates spent two decades fighting for acknowledgment and compensation from the state. Success, Marr said, was a turning point that brought recognition to, and a renewed focus on, accessibility.
“The community was really starting to thrive again, and then this happened,” he said.
The community’s current fight is centered on communication access. ASL interpretation is a difficult skill to acquire, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a national shortage of interpreters, Thibodeau said. Because so much work shifted online during the pandemic, many interpreters found they earned more through national virtual services than in-person local work, leading to serious understaffing in Maine. When he died, Seal was fighting to raise interpretation rates for local work at Pine Tree Society, a Maine nonprofit for people with disabilities, where he served as director, Thibodeau said.
His loss has been devastating for the dozens of people who depended on him to interpret for them, helping with legal and medical interactions, among others.
“We were already desperate enough for interpreters before all this,” she said.
Thibodeau is advocating for a federal bill that would require any video of an event with an ASL interpreter to include that person in frame, and would mandate that television programs be made with an ASL interpretation available.
“We are very proud of being deaf,” said Thibodeau, who has a PhD in public policy and education leadership, through her own interpreter in an interview Thursday. “We’re just frustrated with the ignorance and lack of understanding.”
Advocates have had discussions with the Maine Department of Labor about boosting access to interpreters. The department is looking at apprenticeships to attract more to interpretation, and to make the public more aware of the profession and how to get licensed, a spokesperson said.
Since the shooting, there have been hundreds of interpreter requests daily, Thibodeau said, as the victims’ deaf family and friends seek counseling and help with appointments. Interpreters from around the country have come to Maine to offer help, she said.
“It’s just overwhelming,” she said.
As they grieve, members of the state’s deaf community are, characteristically, finding solace in a shared language. Sanborn, the poet, recalled all four men killed in the Lewiston shooting having attended a one-man show in ASL he performed in Maine two years ago. As he grappled with the enormity of the Lewiston tragedy, he felt compelled to make a poem primarily for the deaf community.
“I really needed to think of the audience affected by this,” he said.
Marr is coping with the loss of Seal, whom he’d known since elementary school, and the other victims, by sharing memories.
“We have to keep saying their names,” he said. “We have to keep signing their names.”