The topic of this blog is something that we here at terptree fully endorse. We believe in the empowerment of both deaf and hearing people to provide equal opportunity for all people, regardless of communication method. Deaf people can achieve anything, as much as hearing people can. To discuss this topic in greater depth, I want to focus on the story of Cadet Private Keith Nolan. He is a Deaf American who communicates through American Sign Language (ASL); and also dreams of joining the US Military. He shares his story in a highly interesting TedTalk (aptly titled “Deaf in the Military”) which you can watch here:
I must say that this particular TedTalk is one of my favourites as it discusses overcoming challenges through adversity. For the purpose of this blog, I want to discuss some of the challenges Cadet Nolan has faced, and what we can learn from them in terms of working with those who are Deaf.
Let’s start with the words that were written on a scrap of paper when he tried to join the Navy: “Bad ear. Disqual”. These three words have an incredible impact upon a person. In that moment, Keith was seen as a label, a disability, rather than a human being. It’s important to emphasise how damaging this can be to a Deaf person, as they are being labelled with the word can’t. They can’t do this, or can’t do that because they’re Deaf which is absolutely not the case.
The only thing a Deaf person can’t do is hear to the same level as you!
Now let’s look at the issue of the uniform within this story. I found it absolutely baffling that the other Cadets were immediately presented with one, but Keith had to earn it. Simply because he’s Deaf, and so he can’t be a Cadet to the same calibre as his hearing peers. The isolation within this is deeply moving. To be the first Deaf Cadet amongst a world of hearing Cadets would have been challenging enough. But to then be further isolated by being represented as a civilian, enforcing his difference and lowering his status amongst his peers, is degrading and demoralising. All because he is Deaf.
So why am I showing you this? Why am I talking about a uniform for a man in America?
I think the whole point of this blog can be summarised by a quote from the TedTalk. Cadet Nolan said this about the man who let him into the ROTC programme: “he doesn’t view me as a deaf person, he looks at my skills and capabilities instead” in short, Cadet Nolan was viewed as a human being.
Within the ROTC programme, Cadet Nolan has many achievements including earning the gold German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge, showing that he is to the standard of the soldiers in the German Armed Forced. He is also a top student in his class. Cadet Nolan’s achievements are inspiring; but not because he is Deaf. His achievements are inspiring because of his dedication to his goals, and his willingness to push for them despite other people telling him he can’t.
We can learn a lot from the way the comrades reacted to having their first Deaf Cadet in the battalion. The solution was simply that they would work together to see what would be best in terms of working and communicating. That’s it. Simply working together to ensure that both parties understand each other, and are understood, effectively.
Of course this can be easier said than done. When meeting a Deaf person for the first time, it is normal to panic and feel like a deer in headlights, because you don’t know how to handle the situation. How do you communicate? What if they don’t understand me? What if I don’t understand them? We immediately jump to the worst-case scenario when in reality, you’re just meeting another human being.
As a society, we don’t like feeling stupid or feeling like we’re failing at something, so we try our best to look like we’ve got everything under control, even if that isn’t the case. If I can offer one crucial piece of advice, it is this: be transparent. If you don’t understand what a deaf person has said or signed, then communicate this to them. Do not awkwardly nod or laugh, despite the temptation to do so. Doing this leaves the conversation awkward and stunted, with no means of progression. If you are honest and admit that you didn’t understand, then the chances are the person you are with will try to adapt what they’re communicating to make it easier. You never know, you might just get it the second time. And if you don’t, that’s okay! You’ll get there if you are both willing and able to adapt; exactly like the comrades Cadet Nolan met in the ROTC programme.
Let me be clear about the key message of this blog; Deaf people CAN do or become anything they want. Deaf people can play instruments, sing, dance, become teachers, doctors, lawyers, actors, activists, politicians, military leaders, parents; ANYTHING. Deaf people have the ability to do the same as hearing people, but they can be limited by the barriers and the labels that are placed on them by other people. To work with Deaf people, you have to be willing to drop the labels and collaboratively embrace different methods of communication.