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Keith Nolan: Fighting to serve as a deaf soldier

Growing up, Keith Nolan always wanted to join the military.

As he says in his April 2011 TED talk, he loved military history and has various family members who fought in WWII. Like them, he wanted the same thing: to serve his country.

“So the question is: Can I?” Nolan asks. “No, I can’t. Why? Simply because I’m deaf.”

But Nolan is doing his part to make sure that someday the answer will be yes.



After Nolan graduated from high school, just three months before 9/11, he went to a naval recruiting center with high hopes of joining the Navy. It was impossible to read the naval man’s lips, so Nolan told him about his deafness. The man tore off a little piece of paper and wrote three words: “Bad ear. Disqual.” He couldn’t even be bothered to fully spell out “disqualified.”

“He couldn’t even be bothered to fully spell out ‘disqualified.'”

Nolan tried various locations but received the same response. He shifted gears and became a teacher, obtaining his master’s in deaf education. He taught for two years and then his life changed again. After lecturing on the Mexican-American War for a high school history class, one of his deaf students approached and said he wanted to join the military. Nolan told him he couldn’t because of his deafness.

“Then I caught myself,” Nolan remembers. “It struck me that all along I had been told no, I can’t, and now I was perpetuating that same message to the next generation, to my own student. That realization had a large impact that really resonated with me.”

Finding new opportunities

A friend of Nolan’s moved to Israel, which is when Nolan discovered that Israel accepts deaf people into the military. He visited the country, where he interviewed 10 deaf Israeli soldiers. A 98-page research paper entitled “Deaf in the Military was the result.” In it, he talks about deaf soldiers who have served in America, like in the Civil War. He also talks about deaf Israeli soldiers as well as disabled soldiers in the US military.

Meanwhile, California State University at Northridge (CSUN) started up an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. Students are able to work toward their majors while participating, and then have a military career upon graduation. Nolan asked if he could take some classes as a teacher, so he could pass along lessons to his students. Surprisingly, he was told something could be worked out.

Nolan’s battalion had never had a deaf cadet before, but the group learned to work together. Initially, Nolan wasn’t supposed to do field training, but he persisted until he got the go ahead. He was treated like the others and did his hardest to show that he could compete with the best of them. He wanted to complete the training like any other cadet and have the Army decide which Military Operational Specialty (MOS) he’d most benefit from. At the time, he was considering being a military intelligence analyst. He was one of the top cadets, passed all the events, and received high marks on his exams, so it looked like he was on his way.

“He was one of the top cadets, passed all the events, and received high marks on his exams, so it looked like he was on his way.”

Then he had the door slammed in his face again. ROTC has four levels; he did the first two but had to pass a medical exam to continue. He was told he could only audit classes, not participate in any training, and had to return his uniform. Nolan says this was incredibly difficult, yet his commander told him not to give up.

deaf soldier


Nolan talked to his congressman, Congressman Henry Waxman, who became one of his earliest supporters. They tried to get a demonstration program passed as part of legislation. This would have allowed 15-20 candidates with a range of hearing loss to receive training and become officers.

This would allow the Department of Defense to see what deaf/HOH Americans are capable of doing as well as the unique potential skills they have to offer, Nolan says. “If the demonstration program proves to be a success, which I believe it will be, the DoD can then revise and update their enlistment accession policy.”

Three Congressional bills were introduced, two on the House side and one on the Senate. These stand-alone bills never made it out of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. A demonstration program provision was pushed to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a military spending bill. Last May, the House succeeded in getting it in their version, but then the Senate removed it.

Congressman Waxman has since retired, but Congressman Takano has taken the lead. Now they’re hoping to get a provision included with the NDAA 2020 bill.

Perspectives to keep in mind

Nolan acknowledges that the issue of deaf people in the military isn’t a trivial one. Combat is a life and death matter. “Your life and fellow service members’ lives are on the line, and that is a valid reason why people might be quick to respond why they think deaf people cannot be in the military,” Nolan says. “It was the same with women and other minorities.”

If we’re to follow history’s example (Women’s Army Corps, Tuskegee Airmen), segregated units might be the first step to show that the risks aren’t any different from their fellow units, Nolan says. Unique skills and benefits could be had from a segregated unit, like the Navajo Code Talkers.

Additionally, the nature of warfare is changing. Battle lines are more fluid, more of our warfighting capabilities rely on technologies, and there’s the new field of cyber warfare. In fact, 80 percent of military occupational specialties don’t involve direct combat.

How the military is attainable for deaf/HOH Americans

To show that serving in the military is attainable for deaf/HOH Americans, Nolan points out the following:

  • Our military has already deployed deaf/HOH civilian employees to military bases overseas where they worked with combat soldiers
  • Our military has already worked with deaf/HOH Israeli Defense Forces soldiers
  • Research has shown that deaf people are better able to use visual information
  • Deaf/HOH people have a better ability to operate in high noise environments (they wouldn’t experience the severely degraded communication and physical reaction to such environments)
  • The pool of candidates would increase at a time when fewer are enlisting
  • Opportunity to enhance existing technologies benefits all
  • Wounded warriors and veterans going through rehab due to hearing loss would benefit

And what about the paradox of service members who sustained hearing loss while serving who were reintegrated with their units and deployed? No one has been able to explain the disparity and contradictions.

Read more: VA Aims to Make Audiological Care More Accessible for Veterans

Receiving Support

All his life, Nolan has heard from other deaf people who would like to serve in the military. There’s even someone who graduated from The Citadel but couldn’t commission into the military due to his cochlear implant. Nolan teaches a cadet program at Maryland School for the Deaf – where he now works – and children approach him all the time saying they’d like to serve. The stories are never-ending, and interest clearly exists.

Nolan feels he’s getting closer to making the demonstration program a reality. “We need and must tell our Senate this spring the importance of this program so that we can finally see it become a reality in 2020!” he says.

“We need and must tell our Senate this spring the importance of this program so that we can finally see it become a reality in 2020!”

To help the cause, Congress needs to hear from you, Nolan says. Reach out to your district representative and senators and tell them that you want to see this demonstration program included in the NDAA 2020. Do this before April 2019; otherwise, they’ll have already started the markup process. If your elected officials aren’t part of the House or Senate Armed Services Committees, urge them to please encourage their colleagues who are.

You can also reach out to the chairmen and ranking members of these committees. If you’re affiliated with an organization that would be supportive of this, like any veteran service organizations or disability organizations, encourage them to send a letter of support. “Share this cause with friends and loved ones,” Nolan says. “Congress especially likes to hear from military members, even those who are retired.”

Nolan refers to a quote by an Army officer, former Blackhawk helicopter pilot and current Army Reserve audiologist who explains why Americans should care about this issue: “One of the great aspects about America is Her evolution…Our country needs to know that there are Americans who want to serve our country, but have been excluded by an outdated accession policy…By allowing deaf and hard of hearing Americans into the military would bring further scrutiny into why there aren’t more Americans with disabilities serving in the armed forces despite the multitude of service members who have acquired disabilities and are still serving.”

Do you have hearing loss and are interested in joining the military? Be sure to reach out to your district representatives and senators

Author Details
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.