What propelled me to think about this issue critically and through the lens of disability rights was my chat with a LC (Legislative Counsel) from outside my office this week. We were talking about my internship experience and how educational it is for me. I said that I had originally entered the office with only two areas of policy interest but now I had broadened to three more areas of policy interest. I mentioned Foreign Affairs as one of the new policy interests and we talked about the difference between Defense and Foreign Affairs. I said that I'm not interested in Defense or military issues because I truthfully don't know very much about the area. Since I'm deaf, I'm not eligible for military service and neither are many in the deaf community so the subject has become rather distant to me. After we finished talking, I walked into the elevator and started thinking about military eligibility and the disability community.
There are some knowledge that you gain from in the classrooms, the books, and the media. And then there are some knowledge that you gain from mere interaction, from social contact, and from cultural sensibilities. It is hard to trace back the original source when your information comes from this second set of knowledge because it's like “you've always known that.”
Growing up, I always knew that the deaf were not allowed to serve in the military and the same is probably true of other disabilities. The only mention of disability in conjunction with military is mostly of disabled veterans. Later on, when I went off to college and many of my friends also did – many people I knew flocked to the SSDI office. The broad-swinging justification for these kind of programs being available to the deaf was because of 2 things: A) Difficulty getting jobs as a deaf person and B) Ineligible for military enlistment.
I can definitely vouch for the A reason. I remember all too well when as a 16-year-old I tried to get a summer job and was continually denied applications at places espousing “HIRING NOW!” signs. Even today, many deaf people get jobs through tips in the community. As a deaf person it's hard to just “walk in and apply for a job.” And the military enlistment is true as well. When you enlist in the military, you get benefits. And we the deaf don't get a chance at that. So the Social Security programs are there to “fill in the gap” of in-equal opportunities.
However, the problem that these kind of programs creates for the deaf community is that it creates a sort of financial pacifier. Rather than suing the workplaces that deny employment and opening up the job market to be more deaf-friendly, deaf people know that there's the SSDI option.
Do we really want to be in this kind of situation? The answer is a flat NO. There are plenty of deaf people I know who have stated that they WANT to serve in the military and WOULD if they were not ineligible. There are no reasons why deaf people can't serve at home bases and contribute their assets in other areas of service else than combat. Regarding employment, I happen to know of a person who was late deafened in his 20s and he lost his job as a waiter along with his hearing. We do go out and look for jobs but more often than not, doors are closed.
Traditionally, deaf people have responded to such job discrimination by creating conclaves where they employ each other. Over 100 years ago, when deaf people were denied insurance – they all got together and established the first deaf insurance company in 1901. We have places of employment where it is more deaf friendly such as education, telecommunications, and certain businesses. Our culture is all about reaching out and helping each other out. But it's time to reach outward rather than inward and push for change.
I've always espoused social programs as important and necessary but at the same time, the job market needs to be opened up enough that social programs are the “safety net” not the “first resort.” The more people are on financial pacifiers, more tax money are being spent by the government rather than more tax money being paid towards the government.
More opportunities need to be created for accessibility in the job market and the military. Here is an interesting reading on deaf people serving in the Israeli military. Remember, the change most often begins at the top – at the government – and that's where we need to “pack” (taking a page out of FDR's book) ourselves in for professional careers.