From Disability to Purpose: Educating Our Wounded Warriors
News In many ways, people with disabilities are treated as an afterthought in college. For veterans, returning to school with disabilities presents its own blend of challenges.
While growing up, my parents never spoke about education. I didn’t have any intention of going to college and on Veterans Day, my senior year of high school, I pursued my calling and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Facing the unexpected
While serving in Okinawa, a routine vaccine for Japanese encephalitis caused a rare reaction that destroyed my optic nerves, causing me to lose my vision.
Only then did I realize that higher education was the key to finding my second calling, helping other blind veterans with technology. To complicate the issue, I had turned down the Montgomery GI Bill benefits during boot camp because my previous goal of serving 30 years in the Marines didn’t have a contingency plan. My wife, whom I had met while volunteering with disabled veterans, discovered that my disability qualified me for vocational rehabilitation education benefits, and I enrolled at the University of Arizona.
"Disabled veterans new to college may not know what accommodations are available for them on campus and are likely to quit college and, ultimately, on themselves."
Though I acquired bachelors and master’s degrees using VA Vocational Rehab (VAVR) benefits, while in school I had to work harder than others to be seen as an equal. The seemingly simple task of buying a textbook is much more complicated for someone with a visual impairment. Taking lecture notes is equivalent to watching a movie by conference call.
Every college that accepts federal funding is required to have some type of disability resource center (DRC). Disabled veterans new to college may not know what accommodations are available for them on campus and are likely to quit college and, ultimately, on themselves.
The purpose of accommodations for disabled students is to provide equal opportunity, not an advantage. It might be an audio book instead of a standard textbook, or extra time for those typing essay responses with one hand. This generation of veterans experiences a higher rate of disability or injury than previous generations and universities should be mindful of disabled student veterans, many of whom are dealing with relatively new injuries.
I feel fortunate to now contribute my experience, through my work, to help student veterans living with the visible and invisible wounds of war succeed in higher education.