Give Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Americans a Chance to Serve

By:  Rep. Mark Takano

Deaf people can do anything — but hear.

I. King Jordan popularized this mantra when he became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The words are a rallying cry of the deaf community in the United States, a community that for decades was defined by what they could not do.

In 1988, deaf people could not run Gallaudet University, a university specifically designed for their education. At least, that is what the university's Board of Trustees thought when they named yet another hearing person as the seventh president of the school. This decision sparked the start of what became the Deaf Rights Movement. Twenty-six years later, a lot has changed. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, incredible advancements in technology are helping to close the communication gap between deaf and hearing communities, and Gallaudet University has its third deaf president. However, the fight is far from over.

Just as we have seen with African-Americans, women, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, an important piece of the equal rights fight in the United States is allowing people who were previously denied access to the military in — integrating troops, serving in combat and openly being able to serve one's country.

Military service is a critical piece of access and equality. And hundreds of talented, motivated deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, who are not given a chance to serve their country, want the opportunity.

That is what Keith Nolan wants, a chance. I met Keith last year, and he shared with me his lifelong dream to serve in the military, as his family members before him did. This is a common dream. So many young American men and women feel drawn to military service because it connects them to their ancestors who served. It is an admirable calling.

Keith completed the first two levels of the Army ROTC program at California State University, Northridge, completing the physical training portion of the program without an interpreter. Despite his excellent performance, Keith was not allowed to continue his training.

The Defense Department sets medical standards for appointment, enlistment or induction, including requirements for hearing levels that would exclude an individual who is deaf, uses a hearing aid or has a cochlear implant. Inspired by the passion and dedication of Keith and countless deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, I introduced HR 1722, the Keith Nolan Air Force Deaf Demonstration Act, a bill that would create a demonstration program in the Air Force for 15 to 20 individuals who would otherwise qualify to serve in the military.

The bill originally was introduced by former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who decided the Air Force would be the best place to start the program.

The bill also requires a special adviser to be designated, and, at the end of two years, a report is required to be submitted to Congress on the outcome of the program.

This is not, as some critics contend, an attempt to completely change the medical requirements for military service. This, instead, would create an opportunity for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to serve their country and an opportunity to see if this larger integration of the deaf community into the military could work. Think of the talent and dedication we are missing out on because of a hearing test.

Since the introduction of this legislation last year, my office has received a lot of support from many deaf individuals who dream of military service, and from military retirees who agree with this legislation. This includes a letter from a retired Army colonel who believes that the proposed demonstration program has the "potential to positively impact accessions and retention." I also received a letter from a young lawyer who was denied entry into the Judge Advocate General's Corps due to the fact that she had used a hearing aid in the past.

We also already have an example to follow. The Israeli Defense Force has successfully integrated more than 100 deaf and hard-of-hearing soldiers into regular units. The Israeli Defense Force has also created sign language course to help commanders better communicate with their deaf soldiers.

My bill does not ask for complete, immediate integration. It is simply a pilot program to see what the obstacles are for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to serve in active-duty military roles and if they can overcome them.

It is time to stop defining deaf Americans by what they can't do, but rather by what they can.

Mark Takano represents California's 41st District in the U.S. House.