By David H. Kirkwood
WASHINGTON, DC—Since its enactment in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made public accommodations, telecommunications technology, and the workplace more accessible to countless people with hearing loss. For example, just last month, the New York Police Department, following the lead of departments around the country, opened its doors to police officers who need hearing aids to pass its hearing test.
Legislation introduced March 26 in the U.S. House of Representatives, proposes a more aggressive application of the ADA, one that would permit a small number of deaf and hard-of-hearing men and women to join the United States Air Force as part of a demonstration program.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) introduced the Keith Nolan Air Force Deaf Demonstration Act (H.R. 1722), after meeting the man the bill is named for. Nolan, Takano wrote in a commentary in the April 5 issue of Military Times, “shared with me his lifelong dream to serve in the military, as his family members before him did.”
Although Nolan, who is deaf, completed the first two levels of the Army ROTC program at California State University, Northridge, with flying colors, and without the help of an interpreter, he was not allowed to continue his training. Department of Defense medical standards for enlistment in the military exclude anyone who is deaf, uses a hearing aid, or has a cochlear implant.
Takano, a two-term Congressman from Riverside CA, said that he championed the legislation, “inspired by the passion and dedication of Keith and countless deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.”
If enacted, the law would create a demonstration program for 15 to 20 people who meet all essential qualifications to serve as an officer in the Air Force, except those related to auditory impairment. Participants would include both people who are deaf and people with a range of other auditory impairments. They would be provided with, the bill states, “the necessary auxiliary aids and services in order to fully participate in the demonstration program.”
Takano introduced a similar bill last July as the House counterpart of a Senate bill sponsored by Tom Harkin. Harkin, one of the leaders in the passage of the ADA and a prominent advocate for people with hearing loss, retired last year after representing Iowa in the Senate for 30 years.
MAKING THE CASE
While admitting people who are deaf into the armed forces might seem far-fetched, Takano argues otherwise in his article in Military Times. In fact, he points out, there is already a model for the United States to follow. The highly regarded Israeli Defense Force, he says, “has successfully integrated more than 100 deaf and hard-of-hearing soldiers into regular units.” He notes that the Israeli military has also created a sign language course to help commanders better communicate with their deaf soldiers.”
Takano, a former schoolteacher who serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, explains that the Deaf Demonstration program is designed to “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.”
He emphasizes that his 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.”
SUPPORT FROM AN AIR FORCE PILOT
Takano’s proposal has received a vote of confidence from Air Force Capt. Casey Doane, whose mother, father, and younger brother, are hearing impaired. Doane, a helicopter pilot with normal hearing, wrote:
“From my direct experience I can say it is entirely possible for deaf or hard-of-hearing Americans to serve in the Air Force. Obviously, certain accommodations and limitations would have to be made, but ultimately no more than for other individuals with unique circumstances who are already serving.”
Capt. Doane added, “Growing up in a deaf family I was able to see first-hand the adversity that deaf individuals faced every day. But more importantly, I was able to see the determination and perseverance that is necessary to serve as a leader in the Air Force. In fact, I credit my own determination to those experiences.”
After its introduction, H.R. 1722, which is co-sponsored by Representatives Niki Tsongas, John Delaney, Ted Lieu, and Chris Van Hollen, was referred to the House Committee on Armed Services.