The recent rampage by a gunman that left 18 people dead in Lewiston, Maine, is opening a window into the vulnerabilities deaf people face during mass shootings and other crises.
Last month’s attack on a bowling alley and a restaurant hit the local deaf community particularly hard. Four of the people killed and some of the 13 injured were deaf friends taking part in a cornhole tournament.
During a crisis, people who are deaf or hard of hearing process situations differently due to lack of auditory cues. Because of this, they’re not always able to identify their immediate risks, leading to confusion and delayed responses, experts say.
And because they can’t rely on sounds to alert them, many deaf and hard of hearing people must perceive threats in their environment through other cues such as feeling vibrations and observing how others are behaving, says Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf.
It’s not clear how these challenges impacted the deaf victims in Lewiston. But at least some of them likely did not hear gunshots or other auditory warnings that help people make crucial decisions in those first few moments, experts say.
“This absence of auditory cues can be particularly disorienting and traumatizing,” Meg Erasmus, clinical therapist and CEO of National Deaf Therapy, told CNN via email. “Not being aware of the immediate danger can lead to a sense of vulnerability and a deeper sense of shock and trauma.”
Members of Maine’s deaf community also say their grief and anxiety in the immediate wake of the shooting were compounded by lack of access to media reports and mental health treatment
The loss hit Maine’s deaf community hard and resonated nationwide
The four deaf people who died in Lewiston were playing cornhole at Schemengees Bar and Grille when the gunman opened fire.
Family members and the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing identified them as William “Billy” Brackett, 48; Bryan MacFarlane, 40; Joshua Seal, 36; and Steve Vozzella, 45.
Advocates for the deaf community say the attack resonated in a population that rarely makes headlines, marking a communal loss that reverberated nationwide. The tragedy likely marks one of the community’s deadliest losses to gunfire ever in the US, Rosenblum says.
“When a deaf person in the community is hurting, everyone feels the pain,” Erasmus says. “When one person is affected, it ripples through all of us. 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.”
It’s not an uncommon concern. One in five Americans ages 12 and older has hearing loss that makes communication difficult, according to a study by Johns Hopkins Medicine.
During emergencies or crisis situations, people who are deaf or hard of hearing often face communication barriers because they miss emergency sirens or announcements over loudspeakers, Erasmus says.
“Deaf individuals might not receive this vital information, leading to confusion and delayed responses,” she adds. “This amplifies their sympathetic nervous system, putting it into overdrive as it attempts to fill in the gaps, resulting in even more harm and potential damage to their mental health.”
And this disconnect during a crisis can have ripple effects long after the danger is over because it can make people in the deaf community feel isolated, Erasmus says.
Deaf people can face limited access to resources to help them process a tragedy – for example, newscasts that lack a sign-language interpreter or mental health experts who are not fluent in sign language, Erasmus says. This can exacerbate their feelings of isolation and hinder their ability to connect with others or seek help, adding to their trauma, she says.
In the traumatic hours immediately following the Lewiston shooting, Maine resident Tommy Minch told CNN’s Omar Jimenez through an interpreter that he turned on his television for updates on the manhunt for the killer but there were no interpreters or captions on air.
He was desperate for news but was left in the dark, said Minch, who is a member of Maine’s deaf community.
“It is extremely frustrating, and we don’t often find out immediate news until hours later,” Minch said. “The deaf community is always behind the news. It becomes a struggle.”
The lack of access to communications during and after a crisis is a major concern among advocates, says Rosenblum of the National Association of the Deaf. Advocates for Maine’s deaf community have reached out to the state’s TV stations to request that interpreters be visible on news broadcasts, he said.
“Our goal is to ensure that a system is created where every person gets the same information at the same time without regard to barriers,” he says. “There should be an alerting system for all emergencies that gets to every person in any mode that is most accessible to each of them.”
Advocates for the deaf also have called for 911 text services to be available nationwide so people can send a message when they need help in emergencies. Maine residents can text 911, but that service is not available in many states.
Deaf people also face a lack of resources after the threat is gone
For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, the trauma caused by mass shootings and other crises can be compounded by the lack of access to resources afterwards, Rosenblum says.
National Deaf Therapy estimates that 5 million deaf and hard of hearing people need mental health services, but only 2% get them.
Maine, for example, has a shortage of licensed mental health experts fluent in sign language, Rosenblum says.
“Receiving mental health services from providers who are not fluent in sign language can be problematic and cause further trauma, especially since such providers do not understand deaf culture and/or misunderstand when there are language barriers,” he says.
Erasmus says it’s crucial for deaf people to work with therapists who understand the unique challenges of the deaf community and can provide “trauma-informed care” tailored to the specific needs of the person.
That requires a therapist who’s fluent in American Sign Language, she says. Sign language is not a literal translation of the English language – it uses facial expressions to convey tone and emotion, and has its own distinct nuances, making it the most efficient form of communication during a crisis, she says.
While captioning benefits people who speak English, some members of the deaf and hard of hearing community are not fluent in English and rely on sign language instead.
“For these individuals, captioning is not a reliable and clear mode to receive complicated and urgent information,” Rosenblum says.
As Lewiston turns to healing, the tragedy is a reminder of the deaf community’s continued fight for access and resources, experts say.
But it’s also a testament to the solidarity of Maine’s deaf community. That closeness has been especially evident in recent days, Minch told CNN.
“With this situation, you do notice more … people checking in on everybody, checking in on each other,” he said. “It will take a while to really recover from this situation. We just have to continue and honor (those killed).”
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