Keith Nolan: Deaf in the military

Recorded atApril 23, 2011
Duration (min:sec)18:25
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute217.52 very fast
Readability (FK)65.15 very easy
SpeakerKeith Nolan
Descriptionteacher; deafness rights campaigner

Official TED page for this talk


Keith Nolan always wanted to join the United States military. The challenge: he is Deaf, which is an automatic disqualification according to military rules. In this talk, he describes his fight to fight for his country. (In American Sign Language with real-time interpretation by Rita Alexander)

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:10 (Interpreter voice-over) Hello, everyone. My name is Keith Nolan.
200:14 I’m a cadet private.
300:19 My talk today is on the topic of the military.
400:23 How many of you out there thought you’d ever like to join the military?
500:27 I see a number of you nodding.
600:29 And I thought the same thing ever since I was young.
700:31 Growing up, I’d always wanted to join the military.
800:35 I loved military history and I’ve read a great deal on the subject.
900:39 Also, I have various family members, such as my grandfather and great uncle, who fought in World War II.
1000:45 And like them, I wanted the same thing: to serve my country.
1100:48 So the question is: Can I?
1200:50 No, I can’t.
1300:51 Why? Simply because I’m deaf.
1400:54 Regardless of that fact, I still had that longing to join the military.
1501:00 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.
1601:10 I went in and a strapping naval man stood up and addressed me.
1701:14 As he was speaking to me, it was impossible for me to read his lips, so I said, “I'm sorry, I’m deaf.”
1801:22 He tore off a little piece of paper and wrote down three words: “Bad ear. Disqual.”
1901:28 He didn't even fully spell out "Disqualified," just: “Bad ear. Disqual.”
2001:33 So I went on my way.
2101:36 I tried various locations a number of different times, trying to join, but over and over again, I got the same response: “Sorry, you’re deaf. We can’t accept you.”
2201:44 So I shifted gears and decided to become a teacher.
2301:47 I completed a master's in deaf education and taught for almost two years, until this past spring, when three things occurred that changed that course, the first of which, while I was teaching a high school history class.
2401:59 I’d lectured on the Mexican-American War.
2502:01 The bell had rung, and I was seated at my desk, when one of my students, who is deaf, approached me and said that he’d like to join the military.
2602:09 I said, “Ah, sorry. You can’t. You're deaf.”
2702:12 Then I caught myself.
2802:13 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.
2902:21 That realization had a large impact that really resonated with me.
3002:25 Now, the second thing that happened, my friend had just moved to Israel.
3102:28 Did you know that in Israel they accept deaf people into the military?
3202:32 How can deaf people be in the military, right?
3302:34 Could this really be true? Come on!
3402:36 Well, I went to Israel last summer to see for myself.
3502:39 I interviewed 10 deaf Israeli soldiers, all of those video interviews and questions I’ve compiled, and the findings, I’ll share with you later.
3602:48 Thirdly, CSUN here, my alma mater, had recently started up an Army ROTC program.
3702:54 ROTC, which stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps, allows students working on their college majors to concurrently participate in the ROTC program.
3803:04 Upon graduation, ROTC students have a military career ready and waiting for them.
3903:09 So if one joined the army, one could commission as a second lieutenant.
4003:13 That's generally the ROTC program here at CSUN.
4103:16 Having learned that, I was intrigued.
4203:18 I already had a profession as a teacher, but I went ahead anyway and sent an email off to the program, explaining that I was a teacher of the deaf, wondering if I could take a few classes with them and perhaps share their lessons with my students.
4303:30 I got an email response back, and surprisingly, it was the first time that I wasn't told, "Sorry, no, you can’t. You’re deaf."
4403:38 It said, "Well, that's interesting.
4503:40 I think maybe we can work something out and you can take a few classes with us."
4603:45 This was unprecedented.
4703:47 So naturally, I was shocked.
4803:49 Although I was teaching, I decided I had to grab the opportunity right away and get my foot in the door.
4903:54 Altogether, that's how it transpired.
5003:56 Now, with all my life experiences, having talked with all the people I had, and given everything I’ve read, I decided to write a research paper called “Deaf in the Military.”
5104:06 I'll share with you what those 98 pages entail.
5204:11 Here in America, we’ve actually had deaf soldiers serving in the past.
5304:15 In fact, during the Texas War of Independence, there was a key character named Deaf Smith, who made a large contribution to that war effort.
5404:23 For the American Civil War, Gallaudet University actually has archived a list of deaf soldiers in that war from the North and the South, showing that deaf soldiers were even fighting against each other.
5504:34 During World War II, there are a few rare examples of deaf people who made it into the military at that time and were able to serve their country as well.
5604:42 History illustrates the fact that America has had deaf soldiers, in contrast to today.
5704:46 In my paper, I also discuss the deaf Israeli soldiers.
5804:50 I learned that they serve in non-combat roles.
5904:53 The deaf soldiers are not on the front lines engaged in fire, but rather, are behind the lines serving in supportive roles.
6004:59 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.
6105:09 The communication between deaf Israeli soldiers and other soldiers who are hearing is carried out with the same approaches deaf people in general use with the hearing public on a daily basis.
6205:19 You can use your voice, lip-read, gestures, sometimes another soldier knows sign language and that can be utilized, pen and paper, texts, computers, emails -- seriously, there’s no magic wand necessary.
6305:30 It's the same thing we do every day.
6405:32 Interpreters are used there primarily for boot camp training.
6505:35 For the average work, it’s not necessary to have an interpreter by your side.
6605:39 The Israeli Army is comprised of small groups.
6705:41 Each of these units with deaf soldiers have developed their own way of communicating with each other, so there’s no need for interpreters.
6805:49 The top picture is of one soldier I met.
6905:52 The bottom photo is of Prime Minister Begin with a deaf soldier in Israel.
7005:58 Another part of my paper touches on disabled soldiers in the US Military.
7106:02 Obviously, military work can be dangerous and involve injury.
7206:06 One example here is Captain Luckett.
7306:09 Due to an explosion, he lost his leg.
7406:12 He’s recovered and currently has a prosthetic leg.
7506:15 Now that he’s strong, he's back in combat, still fighting in Afghanistan.
7606:21 It’s remarkable.
7706:22 And guess what? He’s not the only one.
7806:25 There are 40 other soldiers like him, amputees who are serving in combat zones.
7906:31 Incredible.
8006:32 Also, we have a blind soldier here.
8106:34 While he was in Iraq, an explosion from a suicide car bomber destroyed his eyesight.
8206:40 He’s recovered and hasn’t left the army.
8306:43 The army has retained him on active duty, and he’s currently running a hospital for wounded soldiers.
8406:49 I also found out online about another soldier, who is deaf in one ear.
8506:53 He’s developed civil programs in Iraq, one of which actually started a school for the deaf in Iraq.
8607:01 All of this is incredible.
8707:03 But I am going to ask all of you: If the US Military can retain their disabled soldiers, why can’t they accept disabled citizens as well?
8807:15 Moreover, out of all the US Military jobs, 80% are non-combat positions.
8907:21 There are many jobs that we in the Deaf community can do.
9007:24 If I were to be in the military, I’d like to do intelligence work.
9107:28 But there is an array of other things we can do, such as mechanics, finance, medicine, etc.
9207:33 So to summarize, I’ve presented three premises to support my argument, the first being, Israeli defense openly accepts deaf soldiers.
9307:41 If you have the qualities and skills required, they’ll take you.
9407:44 Secondly, the US Military has accommodations for retaining their disabled soldiers.
9507:49 And lastly, 80% of occupations in the military are non-combat.
9607:54 Now, can we Deaf Americans serve our country?
9707:57 Yes! Of course! Absolutely, without a doubt!
9808:03 Now I’ll explain a bit about my experience in the Army ROTC, which began last fall.
9908:08 I have been involved with that thus far and it’s still going on now.
10008:11 Really, I need to preface this by saying that this is the first time my battalion had ever had a deaf cadet.
10108:18 They had never experienced that before.
10208:20 So of course, they were taken aback, wondering, initially, how I would do this or that, how would we communicate and such, which is a natural reaction, considering that many of them had never interacted with a deaf person prior to me.
10308:33 Plus, I was taken aback by this -- it was the real thing, the army.
10408:37 I had to learn a whole new world, full of military jargon, with its own culture and everything.
10508:44 So we started out slow, getting to know each other and learning how to work together, progressively.
10608:51 For example, on the first day of class, I had no uniform.
10708:55 So I showed up in regular clothes, while the other cadets were all in uniform.
10808:59 I found out that every morning at 5:30, there was physical training, PT.
10909:04 On Fridays, there would be field training -- labs -- off-campus, and occasionally, we would have weekend training at a military base.
11009:12 So I showed up, ready, each morning at 5:30, with all the cadets in uniform and me in civilian clothes.
11109:17 They told me, “Hey, you know, you don't need to work out.
11209:20 You can just simply take classes.”
11309:22 I told them I wanted to, anyway.
11409:23 They acknowledged that, and I continued to show up every morning to train.
11509:27 When Friday came, I asked if I could do the field training.
11609:30 I was told no, just stick with class.
11709:32 I insisted that I wanted to try.
11809:34 Somewhat reluctantly, they let me attend the lab, but only as an observer; I would only be allowed to sit and watch, not participate.
11909:43 Alright, so, I showed up on Friday, and watched as the cadets learned marching drill commands, like how to stand at attention, how to properly salute, and all the basics.
12009:51 I had to ask again if I could join.
12109:54 Finally, I got the go-ahead.
12209:55 I went to get in formation.
12309:57 I figured I better stand in the second line, so I could watch what the cadets were doing in the row ahead of me.
12410:02 But the officer who opened the door for me to join the ROTC program spotted me in the back and said, “Hey! Uh-uh. I want you in the front.
12510:10 You want to be a soldier?
12610:12 You've got to learn the commands just like the rest of them.
12710:15 You’re not going to follow other people. Learn it yourself!”
12810:17 I thought, "Wow.
12910:19 He’s viewing me like any person, giving dignity to who I am."
13010:22 I was impressed by that.
13110:23 So as the weeks went by, I still didn’t have a uniform.
13210:26 I asked if it would be possible to get one, but I was told it wasn't.
13310:30 So I continued on that way, until one day, I was informed that I’d be getting a uniform.
13410:36 "Please!" I said, “Really? Why? What changed?”
13510:39 I was told, “We see your motivation, you show up every morning, dedicated, and always gave a 110% effort.”
13610:45 They wanted to give me the uniform.
13710:47 It was remarkable.
13810:49 We went to the warehouse to get my uniform.
13910:51 I assumed I’d just get a uniform and a pair of boots, nothing more.
14010:54 But they filled two duffel bags chock-full of gear: helmet, ammo vest, shovel, sleeping bag -- the whole nine yards.
14111:01 I was astonished.
14211:03 And I have to tell you, each morning that I get up and put on my uniform, I feel privileged.
14311:12 It’s truly an honor to wear the uniform.
14411:16 So, moving along, when it came time to train at the garrison base, at first, I was told I couldn’t go.
14511:22 There was concern on the ROTC's part that if the interpreter were to get injured during the training, it would be a liability issue.
14611:29 So we had to figure out all those issues and confusion, but we worked it out, and in the end, they let me go.
14711:34 That's how events were unfolding; I was permitted to do more and more.
14811:37 Once, at the garrison base, during one of the training days, a huge Chinook helicopter with its tandem rotors landed right down to us, forcefully spinning exhilaration in the air.
14911:48 All of us cadets were supposed to be getting on board.
15011:51 Everyone was geared up and ready.
15111:53 However, the cadre had decided I wasn’t going to be able to ride the Chinook.
15211:57 They were afraid if the pilot shouted out orders, how would I be able to follow the instructions?
15312:02 I’d potentially cause a disruption.
15412:04 So I had to stand aside, while the others were filing toward the helicopter.
15512:09 I could see the cadre huddled up, discussing, mulling it over.
15612:12 At the last minute, one of them said, “Come on! Get on the helicopter!”
15712:15 I rushed over and got in. It was such a thrill.
15812:19 And that was the spirit of learning about and supporting one another that carried over.
15912:24 And since then, I’ve been involved in everything they do, without any separation.
16012:28 This is where my passion lies.
16112:30 I love them. I’ll show you some pictures here.
16212:35 Bruin Battalion, Bravo Company -- that’s the name of the group I belong to.
16312:38 The cadre are the officers and sergeants who oversee the ROTC program.
16412:43 In the beginning, you can see, it was a bit of an awkward phase.
16512:46 But once they learned more about me and what I’m capable of doing, there's been tremendous support and unity.
16612:52 The cadets, my fellow peers -- well, when you train and sweat together, you feel the bond of camaraderie right away.
16712:57 A brother- or sisterly cohesiveness makes them like family.
16813:01 In training and military science classes, we learn theories of warfare, how to lead soldiers, how to do reconnaissance, strategies, how to knock out a bunker and land navigation, where you’re finding your way out in the mountains.
16913:15 As far as accommodations, I’ve been provided with interpreters through the National Center on Deafness, NCOD, here at CSUN.
17013:23 And I really have to thank them, because it's hard to find interpreters who are willing to wake up at 4:30 in the morning, or sometimes even 3:30 in the morning.
17113:31 That's the officer who emailed me back, saying I think you can have a few classes with us.
17213:36 That's Lieutenant Mendoza.
17313:39 That’s my interpreter there, before class starts.
17413:41 This is a picture from last fall, when we were new to training.
17513:46 This is Lieutenant Colonel Phelps, this being his name sign.
17613:51 He's the commanding officer of the entire Bruin Battalion.
17713:55 Every time I see him walk by, it’s rather inspiring.
17813:58 I mean, the way he presents himself, you can see he’s the epitome of a soldier.
17914:04 Plus, he doesn't view me as a deaf person.
18014:07 He looks at my skills and capabilities instead.
18114:09 He’s really pushed for me, and I respect him for all that.
18214:12 That’s me during one of the exercises.
18314:14 This is that Chinook helicopter I almost didn’t get on.
18414:17 Every cadet has a mentor.
18514:20 My mentor is Cinatl.
18614:23 He’s a really sharp soldier.
18714:25 He teaches me all the finer points and how to execute them ideally.
18814:30 This top picture is when a group of us went to Las Vegas to compete in a test, to see if we could match the German troops' physical training standards.
18914:39 It involved swimming, timed sprints, marksmanship and numerous fitness events.
19014:43 I passed them and satisfied the requirements to be awarded the gold German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge right here.
19114:51 This is one of the sergeants, Sergeant Richardson.
19214:53 I love this guy. He doesn't take baloney from any of us cadets.
19314:59 Here I am one morning, when we trekked seven and a half miles with a 40-pound rucksack in less than two hours.
19415:07 Here are a few of my fellow cadets.
19515:10 I've been with them long enough that I’ve developed name signs for them.
19615:15 On the right, here, is Trinidad.
19715:17 I gave him this name sign because he's always very sarcastic.
19815:21 He's a veteran, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
19915:24 The female is Frigo, whose nickname is "Refrigerator," hence her name sign.
20015:28 We’re always competing intellectually in class.
20115:31 The cadet on the end is Jarvy. He's a top athlete.
20215:35 I've given him this sign because of the scar he has here.
20315:39 Do you know who this is?
20415:40 This is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
20515:43 He is the highest-ranking military officer and principal military advisor to President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates.
20615:51 He gave a talk at UCLA to a full house.
20715:54 Afterwards, I lined up to shake his hand.
20815:56 Having done so, I greeted him, “It’s a great pleasure to meet you.”
20915:59 I signed and my interpreter voiced for me.
21016:01 Admiral Mullen turned to the interpreter and said, “It’s nice to meet you,” addressing the interpreter, who refrained to clarify.
21116:07 He seemed a little confused and just quickly moved on to shake hands with the rest of the soldiers.
21216:12 So I’m not sure whether he really knew that I'm deaf or not.
21316:15 So everything’s been moving along, gung-ho, full speed ahead, until two weeks ago, when something occurred.
21416:25 Well, the ROTC has four levels.
21516:28 I’m currently doing the first two levels, which finishes up this May.
21616:32 The third level will begin in the fall.
21716:34 But in order to move up, you need to pass a medical exam.
21816:38 Obviously, I’m deaf, so I’d fail a hearing test.
21916:44 So we sat down, and I was told that if I wanted to continue to the third level, I couldn’t do any of the PT workouts in the morning, nor the Friday lab field trainings, nor the army base trainings.
22016:59 My uniform, I would have to give back as well.
22117:03 I could take the classes, audit them, and that’s all.
22217:07 It really hit me. It was a huge blow.
22317:13 Many of the officers and cadets have empathized with this sudden shock of disappointment, and are wondering why this has to be the case.
22417:22 Colonel Phelps has tried to speak with the higher-ups in the chain of command and explain to them that I’m one of the top cadets, having passed all the events and receiving high marks on my exams.
22517:32 But their response is unwavering: policy is policy, and if you’re deaf, you’re disqualified.
22617:38 I know that the cadre has tried to find various ways.
22717:42 They found out that there's a deaf cadet at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.
22817:50 That particular cadet will be completing his fourth year there and graduating this May.
22917:54 Yet, he's in the same predicament that I'm in -- unable to join the army because he’s deaf.
23018:00 Yet, all of my fellow cadets and the officers have told me not to give up; the policy must change.
23118:06 I was advised to talk with my congressman.
23218:08 And I've brought this issue to Henry Waxman, the district congressman here in LA, to get the ball rolling with his advocacy for my cause.
23318:16 However, I need your help and support to lobby.
23418:18 All of us, you know?
23518:20 If you remember back in US history, African-Americans were told they couldn’t join the military, and now they serve.
23618:26 Women as well were banned, but now they've been allowed.
23718:29 The military has and is changing.
23818:30 Today is our time. Now it’s our turn.
23918:33 Hooah! (Applause)