Defense Secretary Comments on Potential Pilot Program to Allow Deaf and Hard of Hearing to Serve

SENATOR HARKIN: I have two kind of disparate issues I want to cover with you. One, last November we had a short conversation about what I was hoping to be perhaps the next step in breaking down the discrimination against people with disabilities in our country. And that was allowing people with disabilities to serve in our Armed Forces. We had a unique case of a young man who had gone through ROTC in California, had done extremely well on all of his tests, all of his scores and stuff, but was denied entry into the military because he was Deaf. And I explored with you at that time perhaps having a pilot program, bringing people in to the military who could, who could add to the defense of this country. I just think this is one place where, again, we’ve got to break down some of these barriers. There’s a lot of people with disabilities that want to serve their country, can serve in the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines. They may not be able to do exactly everything that people can do, but they can do – within their abilities, they can provide a lot of support. And I just ask you please, once again, to really take a look at this and set up a pilot program.
SECRETARY PANETTA: I appreciate your leadership on this issue and you’ve been – you’ve led on this issue for a long time during your career here on the Hill, and I really, I respect it, but more importantly I agree with you. And for that reason, I think we can try to set up a pilot program. I mean look, right now, when we have wounded warriors – and let me tell you, wounded warriors come out of there with new legs, new arms, and sometimes they’re back at duty, and they’re doing the job and they’re doing it well.

HARKIN: Exactly.

PANETTA: So if we can do it for wounded warriors, I think we can reach out and do it for others as well, that can be part of it. So you have my assurance, we’ll get something –

HARKIN: I agree, especially looking at some of these young people that are coming through schools right now and stuff, who have a lot of abilities and want to serve. That was one. The second one had to do with another issue that I had briefly raised with you. In Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has been involved in a program of spurring small businesses, in Afghanistan obviously, to get people off of the drug business and stuff, and one of that was in the carpet industry. The Afghan law, there’s an Afghan labor law, there’s a US law, there’s ILO Convention 182 about child labor, about using child labor in this. We ask that you work with the Department of Labor, our Department of Labor on this, to incorporate, to use an NGO, in terms of monitoring this and setting up an inspection system, an independent, third-party inspection and verification system, to make sure that no U.S. taxpayers’ dollars are used to support businesses that employ children in the worst forms of child labor. Now, we’ve had some, we’ve had some progress in that. But as we tend now, as we’re gonna turn this over to them, we’re not setting up a mandatory verification system, and that bothers me. And so, in other words, we were kind of doing a pretty good job but now that we’re handing it over, in our agreement, we’re not making an agreement to make sure that they adhere to the independent third-party verification system there. To me this is just, again, one of those areas where we can do a lot of good while also supporting an industry in Afghanistan, and again I would ask you to look at those contracts that we have, to safeguard that verification and that third-party verification system in Afghanistan.