Denied because they're deaf: Why one Maryland school continues to host unofficial cadet program

Teachers hope corps for deaf students proves they are capable of enlisting.

From afar, the formation of students in military uniforms saluting their captain looks like any other cadet program around the country. But there’s one giveaway that this program is unique: the commands coming from the captain are in American Sign Language.

People who are deaf cannot join the U.S. military. But, that’s not stopping teachers at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland, from leading some of their pupils through the rigors of military life through an unofficial cadet corps demonstration program.

Teacher Keith Nolan started the unofficial cadet corps demonstration program to teach deaf and hard-of-hearing students about leadership, using military training and discipline. He is also leading the effort to change the Department of Defense’s policies so that deaf individuals have the chance to join the military.

"I want to see a demonstration program so that the DOD can see the skills -- the unique capabilities -- that we have to offer," Nolan told ABC News through an American Sign Language interpreter. "So, I do hope the Department of Defense will review and perhaps revise their policy so that they can take advantage of our skills."

Nolan and his staff had worked for years to lobby for a bill in the House that would fund the demonstration program. But ultimately in 2019, "neither the Senate or House Armed Services Committee were willing to support the demonstration program," he wrote in an email.

Now, a provision titled "reducing barriers to service in U.S. Space Force" in the Senate National Defense Authorization Act Report may bring back some hope. The Department of Defense still needs to define how to reduce those barriers, which includes reviewing certain "restrictions based on physiological conditions."

"I am really motivated by this -- another great step forward to recruiting the best talent for our military force in addition to the demonstration program that we've been pushing for," Nolan wrote.

Nolan’s drive for this policy change is personal. In 2001, he was denied from joining the military because he couldn’t pass his physical assessment.

"There was this one test that I couldn’t pass, that was the audiology exam," he said. "It was a huge blow."

Student Crosse Harpin said that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, who had served in the military.

"I would love to do the same thing that he's done, to serve the country," Harpin told ABC News through an American Sign Language interpreter. "We’re lucky here to have the cadet corp program at our school. And I’m just amazed I’ve built my confidence in this program."

The mother of another cadet agreed.

"The first time we saw him uniform ... it was overwhelming to see him," Jennifer Moose said of her son, cadet Aiden Moose. She also recently retired from the U.S. Air Force.

"Maybe one day he’ll be able to join the military," she added.

Until then, the cadets will keep marching on.