Special Interest Groups (SIGs)

Special Feature – Meet a SIG Leader: Dan Standage

By: Jorja L. Waybrant

Image of Dan Standage

In January of 2016, Dan Standage was invited to serve as Co-Chair of AHEAD’s Veterans with Disabilities in Higher Education Special Interest Group (SIG). As a former student veteran with a disability and the current Director of Disability in Education for Student Veterans of America, Dan brought along a wealth of experience and insight to the team -- he understood the culture, the challenges, and the needs. In less than two months as Co-Chair, Dan helped build our current goals and objectives and then jumped in and designed an online collaboration forum to connect SIG members so everyone could take an active role in developing and accomplishing these initiatives. The forum not only serves as a valuable tool to allow active participation but also a means for networking and providing professional development opportunities for everyone who wants to get involved. Dan is extremely innovative, forward thinking, and a real mover and shaker. I think you’ll be delighted by his interview and if you’re at the AHEAD Conference this July please stop by one of our meetings to say “hello” and welcome him to our team of disability service professionals.

Hi Dan, can you tell me about yourself?
Looking back two years, I’m definitely not where I thought I was going to be. For that matter, the plan I had in my head when I was 17 never happened. I was the youngest kid from a family of five. My dad was a mechanic who never graduated high school, and my mom was a homemaker who never made it to high school. I credit my high school graduation and my success in life to joining the Marines. I was only one of two siblings to graduate high school, the first one to go to college, and the only one to serve in the military. I was actually considering joining the Air Force, but was worried that if I didn’t make it, I’d be a labeled a complete loser. Somehow I got it into my head that if I started with the hardest, I could gracefully fail and not disappoint anyone with low expectations. I never quit. I was the fat kid who never played sports and loved sitting in front of a computer. Just before graduating boot camp, all recruits were required to file paperwork for the Montgomery GI Bill. Out of about 500 Marine recruits, me and another guy turned down the GI Bill and saved the $1200 for purchases that were completely meaningless. The drill instructor tried his best to change my mind. Even after some intense physical punishment, my upbringing was stronger than good sense. My goal was to stay in as an enlisted Marine and retire after thirty years.

It never entered my mind that my service would be cut short by twenty years. I lost my eyesight while I was in. Not from anything heroic, like jumping on a grenade to save my buddies, but from a vaccine reaction. More specifically, not getting proper medical treatment for the reaction. While I was in, I got married and had two sons. I separated from the Marines on 12 September 2001, and within a year was a single parent with no money, no job, no education, and living with my parents. I had several people tell me that I should stay at home and enjoy an easy life; that I was entitled. I almost drank that Kool-Aid. I was at the Tucson Veterans Affairs hospital getting blind rehab training, when I ran into a few people who encouraged me to go to college and pursue employment. One person helped me get into VA Vocational Rehabilitation so I could get a degree. My entire life, I never saw anyone who was blind, so when I was blinded, I didn’t think that people with disabilities could work. Because the military disqualifies people for service based on health-related issues, I was insulated.

My vocational rehab counselor was an Air Force vet who did something really novel. She told me that I needed to register with campus disability resources as a condition of being in the vocational rehabilitation program. Truth be told, it wasn’t a requirement, she was just a good mentor. I wouldn’t have made it through college successfully without that advice. My pride would have prevented me from admitting that I was in some way unable. That mentality is engrained into all veterans, because they are recruited for their health and separated from service when health interferes with the mission or performance. The military has incredibly high standards, and when you fall below those standards, you label yourself substandard. It’s part of the military culture that everyone learns during the indoctrination process of basic training. There’s no cultural competency training when separating from the military, so these values are retained during the transition.

I learned a lot about myself in college. As a Rehabilitation major, I studied psychology, disability, and counseling. I helped start a veterans’ program at The University of Arizona and was the first president of the student veteran club. The genetic code of the veterans’ resource center design is based on disability principles. When you consider that every new student to a campus, especially veterans, is essentially blind in a social and academic sense. It was natural for me to design procedures that were familiar to veterans, while promoting independence and maintaining constant contact. At some point, I learned more about servant leadership and how that fit into the design. I wound up getting a Master’s degree in Blind Rehab, in my quest to work in VA Blind Rehab. I never realized that goal, due to a lot of politics. I eventually ended up working at Student Veterans of America as the Director of Disability in Education. I consider myself a product of the place that I work for, taking my experience as a student veteran with a disability and a past Chapter leader, and applying it in a practical way.

I understand your background in the disability field stems from your own experience as a veteran and college student with a disability. What can you tell us about that experience?
As a student veteran with a disability, I took classes to help me understand what I was going through. It really helped me, and it also helps me help others. At the same time, I was navigating the disability space as a student veteran. I had several veterans approach me while I was listening to my textbooks. They were all curious how I was reading my books. I was happy to show them, which gave me the opportunity to talk with them. All of them had some type of disability, like post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. Knowing that pride would prevent them from registering for disability services on their own, I would introduce them to “a good friend” instead. We’d walk clear across campus, asking questions, getting to know them, sharing good tips, and distracting them from the sign that read, “Disability Service Center.” Getting them there before they realized where they were at was the battle. When they were there, it was like any other building on campus. Priming them with the notion, “registering for disability services is like an insurance policy. It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it” dissolved the pride issue through the rational thought process. Sometimes, I had to resort to an old Marine leadership tactic, “a good student does this…” Once they met an access consultant, everything clicked into place. The walk back was them asking me lots of questions about accommodations from a practical sense. Explaining how to listen to their textbooks while exercising or in transit always blew their mind. Using a computer’s text-to-speech as a proofreader also got their attention. Helping them understand how to transcend disability by being a better advocate for themselves was important. Becoming a better student and being successful in school was the goal.

How does that knowledge and experience intersect with what you do in your current position as Director of Disability in Education for Student Veterans of America?
That knowledge and experience allows me to ask questions. I know that sounds overly simple, but when you don’t know something, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s impressive to talk to a veteran or a disability representative and learn they are on a good path or doing something unique. For instance, asking the disability rep how many student veterans they have registered, compared to the total student veteran population on their campus. The common response is that the numbers are incredibly low. The follow-up response is, “I don’t even know how many veterans we have on campus or where I can find that info.” When I run into people who actually know the answers, it’s a good indicator that their campus is doing great things.

What challenges do you feel exist for veterans with disabilities, or student veterans with regard to access to disability services in post-secondary education? What improvements have you seen over the years and what areas still require work?
The biggest challenge I see facing student veterans with disabilities is access to meaningful disability education. For example, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is focused on treating geriatric issues. The median age group for student veterans is 18-35, which coincides with the fifteen-year eligibility period of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The average age is 28. There are an estimated 17% of all veterans who have a service-connected disability. Based on some recent metrics, there are about 1.2-million student veterans. That means that over 200,000 student veterans have a disability of some kind, which is a conservative number in my opinion.

One of the best things I’ve seen is the adoption of interim services for veterans, based on veteran status. Because veterans aren’t getting quality disability education, they are disadvantaged, when compared to a student who had an IEP in elementary and/or secondary school. There’s little to no understanding of the paperwork requirements necessary for reasonable accommodations. Many veterans use college as a transition tool initially, and then realize the benefits a little later on. In practical terms, that means they’re getting on campus first, and then figuring it out. To put it in military terminology, it’s “fire, aim, ready.” Giving student veterans an opportunity to gather the paperwork from their doctor (most likely the VA) without punishing them for not knowing the system, has been an incredible advancement in this space. It’s a compounding investment into the taxpayer’s investment, and it costs nothing. In disability services terms, it’s an accommodation for accommodations.

As for what still needs to happen, disability education needs to happen earlier. In a perfect world, GI Bill-eligible veterans who have a service-connected disability would be flagged in the VA system. Case managers and practitioners would know to discuss academic accommodations, and provide access to the necessary paperwork.

What goals would you like to accomplish in your role as Co-Chair of AHEAD’s Veterans with Disabilities in Higher Ed Special Interest Group?
I’d like to see three tangible goals accomplished. Create a disability representative database for all institutions that can accept the GI Bill as payment. Design a peer-mentor program that allows a student veteran to be a liaison between disability services and veteran services on campus. Last, create a Disability in Education series. From a strategic point of view, the liaison would serve as a bridge between the student veteran, veterans’ services, and disability services. The liaison will make the connections that aren’t happening organically. The database would allow student veterans to be better consumers of their GI Bill benefit by giving them a resource. The Disability in Education series provides meaningful information to veterans, VA practitioners & case managers, disability service offices, veterans’ services, and caregivers/family. The modular series has the potential to radically alter how veterans transition, by making sure transition points have that information. The plan is to propagate this information on a national scale, so it’s effective and consistent. These three goals are linked together and strengthen one another. An intentional byproduct of this work will affect the transition between postsecondary education and employment.

SIG Updates

Veterans with Disabilities in Higher Ed SIG

In 2016, the AHEAD Veterans with Disabilities in Higher Ed SIG took off to a flying start.

For starters, Dan Standage, Director of Disability in Education for Student Veterans of America joined our team as Co-Chair. Upon starting, Dan immediately set off to task, designing a virtual office space for SIG members to meet, develop ideas, build documents, create and complete goals and objectives all year long. By developing the online collaboration tool hosted under SamePage and teams to take on the following initiatives, our hope is that greater ownership and professional development opportunities will exist for SIG members.

Our short term goals and objectives for the year:

  • Develop a collaboration tool to increase input and participation by SIG members (accomplished).
  • Increase engagement and participation by members in SIG (accomplished).

Our current long term goals and objectives:

  • Develop a Disability in Education series to bridge the gap for greater access to information about disability services in postsecondary education environments.
  • Build a disability point of contact database to assist student veterans for greater access.
  • Assist postsecondary education campuses in developing a peer mentoring program.
  • Extend collaborative outreach to other organizations (i.e., NACADA, NASPA, VA, SVA).
  • Expand realm of what we do as a SIG to include all postsecondary institutions.
  • Broaden our scope to include employment as a goal of education as it relates to veterans with disabilities.

To learn more about what we’ve done in the past and where we are going visit our 2016 SIG update.

Mark your calendars - the SIG will regroup at the AHEAD conference July 2016, during:

  • Lunch on Wednesday, July 13 at 12:45-1:45 pm
  • Breakfast on Friday, July 15 at 7:45-8:45 am

If you are a current member we hope you can join us for one or both sessions. If you would like to know more about what we do or want to join our team, please attend either meeting or reach out to us now:

Dan Standage, Co-Chair dan.standage@studentveterans.org
Jorja Waybrant, Co-Chair waybrantj@uncsa.edu

Community College SIG
The Community College Special Interest Group will be meeting on Wednesday, July 13 at 12:45 p.m. during the AHEAD Conference in Indianapolis. Check your program book upon arrival to confirm the location. We will have a brief discussion on how a two-year college started to collaborate with their testing center to better serve students with disabilities. We will also have time for networking. Door prizes will be offered! If you have any questions, please contact Jennifer Radt at Jennifer.Radt@uc.edu. Everyone is welcome!