In May 1971, near the end of my junior year in high school, I participated in Armed Forces Day activities at the U.S. Naval Academy. I was immediately enchanted by the academy and Annapolis. When I returned to school the following week, I asked my guidance counselor if I could apply to the Naval Academy. He said that he didn’t think so, “because you have to be able to hear to serve our country.”
I was the only deaf student in my Montgomery County high school, and I was a good student, involved in myriad extracurricular activities and unaccustomed to being told that I couldn’t do something because of my hearing loss. Crestfallen, I rationalized that I wasn’t that good a swimmer. Certainly naval officers needed to be able to swim more than 50 yards without gasping for breath.
My outlook changed in the fall of 1972, when I entered Gallaudet College (now university) as a freshman. For the first time, I lived and studied among other deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Thirty-nine years later, I know there is no limit to what a deaf person can do.
Except, it seems, in serving our country.
This issue is front and center for me once again, 40 years later, because of a young man named Keith R. Nolan.
Keith is deaf. His father, Kevin J. Nolan Sr., a longtime educator, was a member of the Northampton ( Mass.) City Council in the mid-1980s. He is believed to be the first born-deaf person to be elected to a city council in this country. Keith’s siblings, also deaf, are successful professionals.
Keith has a master’s degree and has worked as a high school teacher in Southern California. But more than anything, he wants to serve our country, as some of his forebears did. At 28, he enrolled in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps program at California State University at Northridge. By all accounts, he was a model cadet.
The ROTC program is open to all students, but completing it requires a medical exam, and that is where Keith’s aspirations are blocked. The Army will not commission him because he is deaf. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has interceded on Keith’s behalf, and his office is reviewing the policy implications.
To buttress his case, Keith has found evidence of deaf people serving our country in several conflicts. He has studied other countries’ policies, notably those of Israel, which has deaf soldiers in noncombat roles. Only 20 percent of U.S. service members are in combat roles, he says, and the rest serve in support. Keith wants to work in military intelligence.
More and more soldiers with disabilities are returning to the front lines. Keith identified 41 soldiers with prosthetic limbs who are back in the field. He learned of Capt. S co tt Smiley, who was blinded in Iraq and now commands the Warrior Transition Unit at West Point’s Keller Army Medical Center as the Army’s first blind active-duty officer. And if you consider learning disabilities, which are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, it’s a good bet that the military has more soldiers with disabilities, on the front lines and elsewhere.
Being deaf has not prevented Keith Nolan from leading a full life. It has not prevented him from being called a top cadet by his ROTC superiors.
So what’s the problem? Why can’t Keith Nolan serve our country? For that matter, why couldn’t I 39 years ago?
The United States has one of the world’s largest militaries, and arguably the most powerful. It has not always been the most diverse. My one-time school of choice, the Naval Academy, did not admit women until 1976. And the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, hopefully on its way to an overdue demise, has led to many proud gay and lesbian service members being discharged from the military.
The military needs to rethink its policies regarding people with disabilities.
I am unabashedly dovish, but I know that with the United States engaged in two wars and a conflict in Libya, our military’s need for America’s best has never been greater. There’s a large pool of people who are being systematically excluded by an outdated, irrelevant policy. It’s time to let people with disabilities serve our country.
Robert Weinstock is special assistant to the provost at Gallaudet University; the views expressed here are his own.