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July 1, 2011

Clarke Alum Keith Nolan Featured In the Hampshire Gazette

July 1, 2011—(from the Hampshire Gazette) With relatives who fought in World War II, Keith Nolan has long dreamed of following in their footsteps and joining the Army.

About a year ago he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and has excelled in the program's classroom and field training activities. He has all the makings of a model soldier, except for one thing: he's deaf.

While Nolan maintains there are plenty of non-combat roles he and other deaf people could fill, U.S. military policy does not allow deaf people to enlist.

He's trying to change that.

Nolan attended Northampton's former Clarke School for the Deaf, now called Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, until 1994, when he moved to Maryland.

His father, Kevin Nolan, was a guidance counselor and teacher at Clarke School for 21 years, and was a Ward 2 city councilor from 1986 to 1987. Now living in Waltham, he is believed to have been the first born-deaf person elected to public office in the country.

"Now it's his turn to break ground like that," Kevin Nolan said of his youngest son during a phone interview through a deaf interpreter. "It's in the genes maybe."

Now 28, Keith Nolan lives in Chatsworth, Calif., 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles. In May he completed the first two of four levels of the ROTC program at California State University at Northbridge. But in order to continue his training, and to ultimately join the Army, Nolan would have to pass a physical examination that includes a hearing test.

"I am beginning to see my fight for commission into the Army not to be only for my own behalf, but rather for the disabled citizens of America," Nolan said in a recent email interview.

Before joining ROTC, he taught history full time at a high school in Woodland Hills, Calif. He is now a substitute teacher.

His superiors in the ROTC called Nolan a top cadet, but said they can't get around military policy on deafness.

"He excelled easily, whether physically, mentally," said Capt. Sid Mendoza, a course instructor and training supervisor for Nolan's unit, Bravo Company. "Whatever it was, he definitely had a drive."

"Keith Nolan is an outstanding young man," Lt. Col. Shawn Phelps, the commanding officer of the Los Angeles-area ROTC program, said in an email. "I let him participate because he was enthusiastic and thrived in the ROTC environment."

The military already has programs to retain soldiers disabled in combat, Nolan said. Today there are 41 amputees who continue to fight using prosthetics, he said, and one soldier who was blinded by an explosion in Iraq manages a military hospital.

But there's no way for people who are already disabled to enter the armed forces.

"If the military can retain some of its disabled soldiers," Nolan asked, "why not accept and enlist the service of disabled Americans as well?"

Eighty percent of military jobs do not involve combat, Nolan said. A few examples are administrative positions, finance, medical and legal services. Nolan said he'd like to work in military intelligence.

Nolan has enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to change the law barring deaf people from joining the military. Waxman's office appealed to the Army on Nolan's behalf and, after getting a negative response, referred his case to a policy analysts, Nolan said.

A Facebook site devoted to Nolan's cause (, had 1,809 fans as of Thursday

"It's not going to be easy," Kevin Nolan said of his son's effort to change military policy. "We know it's a long shot."

To bolster his case, Keith Nolan recently completed a 98-page study on the history of deafness in the military, which he hopes to someday publish. Deaf soldiers served in the Texas Revolution of 1835, the Civil War and World War II, he said.

As part of his research, Nolan interviewed several deaf Israeli soldiers he met through family and friends.

Unlike the U.S. military, the Israeli Defense Forces allow deaf people to serve in non-combat roles. The current and retired soldiers Nolan spoke to included computer and laboratory technicians, intelligence and logistics specialists and a military dog trainer.

Nolan presented some of his findings in April at an event called TEDxIslay in Los Angeles. (TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a series of conferences on a wide range of topics; in this case, issues around deafness. Islay is the name of a fictional island inhabited by deaf people in a 1986 novel of the same name by Douglas Bullard.)

Audience members asked lots of good questions and provided ideas for further research, Nolan said. In particular, he noted that technology like unmanned aerial drones could make it possible for deaf people to participate, albeit indirectly, in combat.

Nolan sees a parallel between his struggle and impending repeal of the policy barring homosexuals from serving openly in the military. He quoted President Barack Obama, who said in a January speech that "no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love."

"Obviously, President Obama did not have the deaf in mind," Nolan said in an email. "But if no American would be 'forbidden from serving the country they love,' then I want to serve."

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