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Deaf and hard of hearing Vermonters mourn Maine shooting victims

A piece of paper stapled to a wood post shows the photos of four members of the Deaf community who were killed in the Lewiston mass shooting
Matt Rourke
Associated Press
At a makeshift memorial shows images of members of the Deaf community who were killed in the mass shooting at Schemengees Bar and Grille in Lewiston, Maine, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

When a man walked into Schemengees Bar and Grille in Lewiston, Maine on Oct. 25 and opened fire, the impact of those shots rippled into Vermont. Four of the 18 shooting victims were Deaf, and other Deaf people were injured but survived.

"When I started seeing the names, I was like, oh my gosh. It was just such a shock," said Val Hughes, who lives in Montpelier. "You start realizing who you know."

Hughes, who is Deaf, explained that the Deaf and hard of hearing community in New England is small and close-knit. She personally knew three of the four Deaf victims of the shooting, including Bryan McFarlane. He lived in Vermont for years before moving back to Maine this summer.

"I was looking forward to seeing him in a couple weeks," Hughes said. "That’s a huge impact. I won’t see him again. It hurts my heart."

McFarlane was a truck driver, and Hughes remembers when he obtained his commercial drivers’ license, or CDL. He was the first Deaf person in Vermont to do so.

"That was a big thing," she recalled. "It was hard work, but he did it well. He was a very nice gentleman."

Many Deaf people in the region know one another through the network of schools for the Deaf in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, or through events. Cornhole tournaments in particular have become very popular. The four Deaf shooting victims were playing in a cornhole tournament — McFarlane, Steve Vozzella, Joshua Seal and Billy Bracket.

Rebecca LaLanne, the director of the nonprofit Deaf Vermonters Advocacy Services, or DVAS, said through an interpreter that she's been in touch with some of the Deaf survivors of the shooting over the past week to make sure they feel supported.

"Just knowing their firsthand experience of witnessing all of this — like, we can never understand. We weren't there, but we can lend our support as much as we can," she said.

"... four is too many within our small community."
Rebecca LaLanne, director of Deaf Vermonters Advocacy Services

But when she starts to think of the full scope of the tragedy, she feels overwhelmed.

"To lose one person is horrendous. But to lose four is unfathomable," she said. "And not to dismiss other people who have passed and perished who are not Deaf, but speaking of our community specifically, four is too many within our small community."

Other are sharing similar sentiments on Facebook pages for Deaf and hard of hearing Vermonters. "losing [sic] 4 beloved members is a huge loss… losing them to something so senseless make it even worse," Deb Woodward wrote in a Facebook message. She lives in St. Johnsbury but grew up in Leeds, Maine, about a half hour from Lewiston. "All of my Deaf friends there lost people they were close to," she wrote. Woodward was born with single-sided deafness and has since lost most of the rest of her hearing.

Bill Hudson of Essex Town, who is hard of hearing, is very connected within Vermont’s Deaf community. He was friends with Bryan McFarlane and helped him get his CDL.

"The teachers said he was a rock star. They loved him," Hudson said. "He earned his CDL license with flying colors. He got a job in Vermont truck driving. So it was a very good, successful story. And I was very proud of him."

Hudson said there's one aspect of the shooting that continues to haunt him — the fact that McFarlane and his friends couldn't hear the gunshots.

"They couldn't respond, you know what I mean?," he told me on the phone. "The other people who could hear well, like you, probably heard the gunshots and they all scattered to hide." He struggled to find the right words for what he wanted to say next. "But these guys never — didn't hear it. So they had no… they had… They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The shooting does seem to have prompted more conversations among Deaf and hard of hearing Vermonters about safety, such as the need for more interpreters at police stations and more reliable emergency alert systems. In the case of a mass shooting, however, there aren’t obvious solutions.

Val Hughes, who knew some of the victims, said keeping those conversations going is high on her priority list. She's the Deaf independence program coordinator with the Vermont Center for Independent Living.

"It’s definitely in my mind that I need to start talking to some of my friends and discussing how we can feel protected from this happening again," she said.

But for now, she and other Deaf and hard of hearing Vermonters are still in the midst of their grief. Some, like Bill Hudson, plan to drive to Maine for McFarlane’s memorial service. Others will gather for a memorial for all the Deaf victims at an upcoming cornhole tournament in Connecticut. For Hughes, it feels like a perfect place for a tribute.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.

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