Deaf people, military service


Keith Nolan, a deaf man with undergraduate and graduate degrees, asked to be admitted to military training to become a uniformed American soldier. The military said no, and the issue was joined. Nolan’s application presents the Department of Defense (DOD) with an opportunity to reconsider its historical bar to people who are deaf. The Article suggests a new paradigm in thinking about the selection criteria used to screen out deaf applicants for military service, a paradigm rooted in a disability studies framework. With a few exceptions in the Civil War, the United States armed forces have barred people with disabilities, including those who are deaf, from serving in the military. The current recruitment model is based on the “undifferentiated soldier,” which requires an applicant for military service to become combat-ready, that is, someone who can serve on the front line of fighting even if ultimately the soldier never enters the theater of war in his or her military career. As Keith Nolan’s case demonstrates, the military assumes deaf applicants are incapable of military service because they cannot become combat ready. These assumptions underline a DOD report to Congress last year that militates against deaf soldiers in the United States armed forces. It is time to rethink these assumptions.