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Lawmaker wants trial program for deaf to serve in Air Force

People otherwise fit for duty would be given chance

Aug. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Capt. Casey Doane, far right, grew up with parents and a brother who are hearing impaired. He is shown here with his father, Randy Doane; brother, Keith Doane; mother, Loriann; daughter Hannah; and his wife, Andeelynn, who is holding Ellie Mae
Capt. Casey Doane, far right, grew up with parents and a brother who are hearing impaired. He is shown here with his father, Randy Doane; brother, Keith Doane; mother, Loriann; daughter Hannah; and his wife, Andeelynn, who is holding Ellie Mae (Courtesy photo)
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A lawmaker who advocates for the deaf is calling for a trial program that would allow a small number of hearing impaired to serve in the Air Force.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced in the House on Wednesday legislation that would give 15 to 20 people who are deaf or hard of hearing but otherwise fit for military duty the chance to serve their country.

The Defense Department excludes from service those who are deaf, use a hearing aid or have a cochlear implant. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a DoD spokesman, said that is for good reason.

“In all areas of military life, but especially in combat, an individual's life and the lives of his or her comrades may depend on what individuals can hear. Situations could occur where hearing impairment would not only result in injury or loss of life, but could jeopardize a unit's mission,” he said in an email. “Individuals who are physically disqualified for military duty can and do become civilian members of the team. The work they perform for the Department and our country is valuable and rewarding but without the rigors of military duty.”

The proposed legislation is a companion to a bill introduced in the Senate in December by Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has noted the military allows service members who acquire a disability while serving their country to remain on active duty.

Takano, who represents the California School for the Deaf in Riverside and co-chairs the Bipartisan Congressional Deaf Caucus, and Harkin were inspired by the story of Keith Nolan, an Army ROTC cadet in California who could not advance because he could not pass the hearing test, said Brett Morrow, a spokesman for Takano.

The congressman would like to see such a program in all service branches, Morrow said, “but we felt that the Air Force was the best place to start.”

An Air Force helicopter pilot whose mother, father and younger brother are hearing impaired has written a letter in support of the proposed legislation.

“It is from my direct experience that I can say it is entirely possible for deaf or hard of hearing Americans to serve in the Air Force. Obviously, certain accommodations and limitations would have to be made, but ultimately no more than for other individuals with unique circumstances who are already serving,” Capt. Casey Doane of Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, wrote.

Doane grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and learned sign language before his first birthday. With two deaf parents, he did not learn to talk until he was 4 — and that was with the help of a speech therapist. He spent a decade in the enlisted ranks before commissioning as an officer and becoming a helicopter pilot. He credits his successes to the determination and perseverance he witnessed among his deaf family members. His mother is a teacher, his father a semi-truck driver. Doane’s younger brother, Keith, spent the summer as an intern in Takano’s Capitol Hill office and will pursue his master’s degree this fall.

“They have a disability, if you even want to call it that, but they overcame it,” Doane said. “They can’t hear, but they’re still able to do just about everything that anybody else would be able to do. There are deaf athletes, deaf people that are professors, death people that are presidents of corporations.”

The trial program is “one of those things where you never know until you try,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, maybe we’ve found something better.”

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