Disability advocate discusses inclusion in military at Fort Meade event

Keith Nolan, a teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf, delivers the keynote speech for Fort Meade’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance through sign language. (Photo by Steve Ellmore)

Keith Nolan was born deaf.

However, he didn’t let his disability hold him back from trying to follow his dream of enlisting in the military.

As guest speaker at Fort Meade’s National Disability Employment Awareness observance on Oct. 19, Nolan recounted his experiences and his work as an advocate for the deaf, hard of hearing and hearing impaired.

The 90-minute event was held at Club Meade and organized by Jose Flores, the disability program manager for the Fort Meade Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

The theme for this year’s observance was “Make Inclusion A Core Value.”

“In today’s military, more service members with disabilities are staying on active duty and can still contribute to the nation,” Flores said. “This event was important to make everyone aware of the capabilities individuals with disabilities have and what they bring to any organization.”

Throughout his speech, Nolan signed as his interpreter Shawn Maldon spoke.

“I wanted to join the military right after high school,” Nolan signed. “The Navy was my first choice, but I couldn’t enlist because of my deafness.”

Instead of submitting to defeat, Nolan attended California State University, Northridge, where he joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and used interpreters, lip reading and texting to participate in training.

“I was in the top 20 percent of my class,” he signed. “I completed the first two levels and was ready to move up to the third level. Before doing so, I needed to be contracted with the Army and I couldn’t do that due to the Army’s policy on deafness. It was an automatic disqualification.”

Nolan, who earned a master’s degree in deaf education, teaches high school students at the Maryland School for the Deaf for the school’s Cadet Corps.

He explained how disabilities can vary from person to person.

“Sometimes disability can be evident such as blindness or a physical amputee, while sometimes it can be hidden, like deafness,” he said. “Sometimes people talk about their disability and others prefer not to do so.

“So, sometimes people have an assumption about a disability, some of which might be accurate and [some] maybe not. [This is] why it’s great to have an opportunity such as today to talk about it because there are still many things Americans with disabilities can offer our country.”

Legal Remedies

Nolan also spoke about service members who had served with disabilities and Bill H.R. 17722, which he has been working on for the past six years. The bill, also known as the Keith Nolan Air Force Deaf Demonstration Act of 2015, calls for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force to carry out a demonstration program with 15 to 20 individuals who are deaf or have a range of auditory impairments to assess whether it is feasible for them to become officers in the Air Force.

The biggest challenge Nolan has faced in passing the bill is a lack of support from the Department of Defense.

“Despite the opportunities and potentials of having the demonstration program, the DoD was not supportive,” he signed. “It was rather unfortunate for me to learn that. So, the congressional bills never made it out of the Senate and the House Armed Services Committees.”

Nolan used the Israeli Defense Force as an example of how qualified deaf people can serve in the military. Using text messages, emails and lip reading, deaf people have had the opportunity to serve in uniform for the IDF. Nolan interviewed 10 deaf Israeli Soldiers to gather information about their experience serving.

“I learned that they served in supporting roles, rather than on the front line,” Nolan said of the deaf IDF Soldiers. “Two of them said that they even worked with American Soldiers. It just goes to show, much like what I was able to do with my ROTC battalion, that deaf and hearing Soldiers can work together.”

Nolan ended his speech by asking audience members to help support passage of his bill.

“Now, as I stand before you, I ask for your help to push for the demonstration program,” Nolan signed. “If there is any way you can help, perhaps talking with others about this presentation or reaching out to the DoD, it would be tremendously helpful.”

Learning To Persevere

Among those in attendance was Tamara Johnson, a youth administrator for Child, Youth and School Services, who was unaware of the difference between enlisting Soldiers who come in with additional needs and accommodating Soldiers who are injured during combat.

“I didn’t realize there were barriers there,” she said. “I thought that if you had additional needs, you stand the same chance of [serving in uniform] as somebody who was injured during combat.”

For Johnson, Nolan’s speech was more than just informative; it was inspiring.

“I think that for everyone who is sitting here, I think what they heard was, no matter how big the hurdle or the mountain is, don’t give up,” Johnson said. “Until somebody says something, until somebody fights for it, there isn’t going to be a change. [Nolan] didn’t give up and that is why he’s standing here today, advocating for Soldiers with disabilities.”

Lauri Meek, a human capital management specialist at the Consolidated Adjudications Facility, chose to attend the observance after learning the speaker would be Nolan.

“[Nolan] has an inspiring story,” Meek said. “What disappoints me is that all employees on base are invited to attend diversity program events. This is the smallest event and it just disappoints me because it shows you there’s not a lot of support.

“We’re not disabled, we’re ably different.”

Meek, who wears bilateral cochlear implants, started to lose her hearing as a teenager and went completely deaf in her early 30s. When she was younger, Meek wanted to join the National Guard but was barred due to her hearing loss.

“I’ve never really looked at myself as disabled,” she said. “People have [worse] disabilities than mine. I let my deafness hold me back for a long time — a very long time. But once I got my implant, my first one, I was out the door, on and up.”
Editor’s note: For more information, call Jose Flores at 301-677-3660.

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