American Sign Language interpreter Regan Thibodeau signs “interpreter” Nov. 12 from her home in Windham as she discusses her work signing for the deaf community in the aftermath of the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston. She knew some of the victims and found herself navigating roles as both an advocate and griever, finding strength in collective mourning, and with her family and community support. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Following the mass shooting in Lewiston on Oct. 25, Regan Thibodeau, a deaf American Sign Language interpreter and professor of American Sign Language at the University of Southern Maine, found herself in the dual role of being an advocate for the deaf community while also grieving the loss of multiple close friends.

Four members of the deaf community were killed while playing in a cornhole tournament for the deaf community at Schemengees Bar & Grille on Lincoln Street. As the survivors fled, they reached out to warn their friends not to come to the bar.

“People that escaped were texting other people who were on their way to say, ‘Hey, don’t come,’” Thibodeau said. Word spread quickly.

Joshua Seal, who Thibodeau worked with through the COVID-19 crisis translating the daily messages from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was one of the people murdered at Schemengees.

Another was a close family friend, Bryan MacFarlane, who Thibodeau has known for over 30 years. She felt responsible for delivering the heartbreaking news of his death to MacFarlane’s mother. “I feel like it’s better from somebody they know than not.”

Thibodeau recognized the immediate need for communication within the deaf community. Official channels would soon disseminate information, and an ASL interpreter was crucial. Seal would have been one of the people tasked with this job.


“I didn’t know that Josh was gone, but I knew that he was missing. I knew that there wasn’t a deaf interpreter there,” Thibodeau said, “I went out when there was an active shooter because I wanted to provide access. I wanted people to know they needed to be in lockdown, to keep an eye out, to call the police if they saw something.”

Individuals who are deaf get information through diverse methods. Some rely on voice-to-text or auditory cues. Many, like Thibodeau, use American Sign Language.

ASL is not a direct word-for-word translation of English. For many deaf individuals, it serves as their primary language. In places such as Lewiston and Auburn, with non-English speaking communities, some deaf residents use ASL as their first language.

“My access priority is American Sign Language,” Thibodeau said. “I want to make sure that deaf individuals that moved from different places around the world are included.”

At the news conference Oct. 26, the day after the shootings at Schemengee’s and Just-in-Time Recreation bowling alley on Mollison Way, she stood at the front of the room, knowing that people from the deaf community had been killed, forced to hold onto that information she had learned through her network. It was information she had to keep to herself.

“It wasn’t my job to tell people.” she said. “The community was starting to share things. But my job, when it comes to press briefings, is to interpret what’s being said there, and that was it.”


Maine Shooting

Gov. Janet Mills speaks during a news conference Oct. 27 in Lewiston as Regan Thibodeau, right, translates her message into American Sign Language for the deaf community. AP Photo/Matt Rourke file

She and her team had to educate members of the media, local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about how translators needed to appear on the screen.

Without thoughtful positioning in front of the cameras, “Part of my fingers were cut off, part of the side of my head was cut off,” Thibodeau said. The same community who had initially spread the news about the shootings were now going through the telephone tree getting the message out that the interpreter needed to be more visible on screen.

After speeding up to Lewiston from her home in Windham, Thibodeau relocated to a local hotel with her team and another interpreter for the duration of the manhunt and the aftermath. She found solace in spending time with other interpreters who could understand the complexities of grieving while working.

“We don’t have the liberty of being able to grieve yet because we need to be grieving together,” Thibodeau said. “And that means deaf people and hearing people grieving together through access.”

She found strength in the deaf community, her family and strangers. “My support system is my community. Talking with survivors, talking with the families who lost their husbands, that helped me in my own process.”

“My children were amazing,” she said. “They came out to the hotel because I wasn’t ready to come home. I have older kids. They were able to process some of this. My husband works in another state, but he was here as much as he could be.”


An emotional Thibodeau described her experience seeing fans at a Patriots game in Massachusetts using the “I Love You” sign during a moment of silence for shooting victims.

“It was the first time I ever understood a moment of silence,” she said. “I’m already in a silent world. Moments of silence are my day-to-day.”

She said it hit her hard “to see strangers, people that didn’t know us here in Maine, sitting at that game and doing that. That was the first time I lost it.”

Her students at the University of Southern Maine contributed to a meal train to get food to the families of the victims,  those injured and survivors. Later on the assistance widened to help support people, such as the interpreters.

“I have a meal in my refrigerator from one interpreter, which is special. Sometimes you get back home after something like this and you’re not yet ready to take on the world again.”

Editor’s note: Regan Thibodeau communicated to the writer for this interview through an American Sign Language interpreter. 

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.