Deaf in the Military [Subtitled]: Keith Nolan at TEDxIslay (Full Transcript)

Hello, everyone. My name is Keith Nolan. I’m a Cadet Private. My talk today is on the topic of the military. How many of you out there thought you’d ever like to join the military? I see a number of you nodding. I’m the same way. Growing up, I’d always wanted to join the military. I love military history and I’ve read a great deal on the subject.

Also, various family members such as my grandfather and great uncles fought in World War II. And like them, I wanted the same thing, to serve my country. So, can I? No, I can’t. Why? Simply because I’m deaf. Regardless, I still had that longing to join the military. For example, after I graduated from high school, three months before 9/11 occurred, I went to a naval recruiting center with high hopes of joining the Navy. I went in and a strapping naval man stood up and addressed me. It was impossible for me to read his lips, so I said, “I’m sorry, I’m deaf.” He tore off a little piece of paper and wrote down three words: “Bad ear, disqual.” He didn’t even fully spell out disqualified, just “bad ear, disqual.”

I tried various locations, a number of different times, but over and over again I got the same response. “Sorry, you’re deaf. We can’t accept you.” So, I shifted gears and decided to become a teacher. I got a masters degree in deaf education. I taught for almost two years.

Then three things occurred last spring. The first one was while I was teaching a high school history class. I’d lectured on the Mexican-American War. The bell had rung, and I sat at my desk. One of my deaf students approached me and said he’d like to join the military. I said, “Ah sorry, you can’t, you’re deaf.” Then I caught myself. 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.

Now the second thing that happened, my friend had just moved to Israel. Did you know that in Israel they accept deaf people into the military? How can deaf people be in the military, right? Could this really be true ? Come on! So, I went to Israel last summer to see for myself. I interviewed 10 deaf Israeli soldiers. I have video interviews and I’ve compiled findings. I’ll share those with you later.

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Third, CSUN here, my alma mater, had recently started up an Army ROTC program. ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps. Students working on their college majors can concurrently participate in the ROTC program. Upon graduation ROTC students have a military career ready and waiting for them. So, if one joined the Army, one could commission as a Second Lieutenant. That’s generally the ROTC program here at CSUN. I already had a profession as a teacher. But I went ahead anyway and sent off an e-mail to the program. I explained that I was a teacher of the deaf. I was wondering if I could take a few classes with them so… I could perhaps share their lessons with my students.

I got an e-mail response back. Surprisingly, it was the first time that I wasn’t told you can’t, you’re deaf. It said, well, that’s interesting. I think maybe we can work something out and you can take a few classes with us. This was unprecedented. Naturally I was shocked. Although I was teaching, I decided I had to grab the opportunity right away and get my foot in the door. So, that’s how it happened.

Now with all my life experiences, having talked with all those people, and given everything I’ve read, I decided to write a research paper called “Deaf in the Military.” It’s 98 pages of research. I’ll share with you my findings now. Here in America, we’ve actually had deaf soldiers serving in the past. During the Texas War of Independence… There was a key character, named Deaf Smith. He made a large contribution to Texas winning its independence. In the American Civil War, Gallaudet University has archived a list of deaf soldiers who fought for both the North and the South, showing that they even fought against each other.

During WWII, there are a few, rare examples as well. Some deaf people made it into the military at that time and served their country. The point is… America has had deaf soldiers serve in the past. In my paper, I also discuss the deaf Israeli soldiers. I learned that they serve in non-combat roles. They are not on the front lines engaging in fire, but rather are behind the lines serving in supportive roles. There are a plethora of various non-combat jobs accessible to the deaf: Intelligence, computer technology, map drawing, supply, military dog training, the list goes on.

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How do deaf Israeli soldiers communicate with the other soldiers? They told me it’s the same approach deaf people use with the hearing public on a daily basis. You can use your voice, lip-read, gesture. Sometimes another soldier knows sign language and that can be utilized. Pen and paper, texts, computers, e-mails. There’s no magic wand. It’s the same thing we do everyday. Interpreters are used primarily for boot camp training. For the average work it’s not necessary to have an interpreter by your side.

The Israeli Army is comprised of small groups. Each units with deaf soldiers have developed their own way of communicating with each other. There’s no need for interpreters. The top picture is of one deaf soldier I met. The bottom photo is of him with Prime Minister Begin in Israel. Another part of my paper touches on disabled soldiers in the U.S. military. Obviously, military work can be dangerous and involve injury. One example here is Captain Luckett. Due to an explosion, he lost his leg. He’s recovered and currently has a prosthetic leg. Now he’s back in combat, fighting in Afghanistan right now. It’s remarkable. And guess what, he’s not the only one. There are 40 other soldiers like him. Amputees who are serving in combat zones. Incredible.

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