Special Interest Groups (SIGs)

Veterans SIG

Jorja Waybrant, co-chair

Dan Standage, co-chair

Sandi Patton, vice-chair

The AHEAD-Veterans SIG is expanding its scope.  We’ve traditionally focused our messaging at AHEAD members and disability service providers.  Starting in April, the SIG’s updates will change format from a monthly listserv-only email to a tri-annual newsletter.  The newsletter will still go out on the SIG listserv, but will also be available on the SIG’s landing page.  A familiar slogan of the disability rights movement was “nothing about us, without us.”  We want to progress the movement into the student veteran space by ensuring student veterans with disabilities are included in the work that we do.  It’s a way to provide informed feedback instead of a prescription.  Short-term, the inclusion lends creditability to the work we’re doing as more consistent information is passed from one veteran to another.  Long-term, we leverage the potential of future leaders to be advocates of diversity on a more meaningful level and scale. 

We created a Facebook forum in collaboration with professional associations and organizations, and asked current student veterans to be moderators.  The forum provides a central place to exchange information, ask questions, get answers, and help one another.  Another area beginning to trend is with the Disability Services Liaison (DSL) positions.  The DSL serves to connect student veterans with disability services.  The position can be funded by the VA workstudy program, so there’s no cost to the school.  The student veteran gains some practical knowledge of academic accommodations and can provide some cultural competency about veterans.  A working draft of the DSL toolkit is available by contacting dan.standage@studentveterans.org

10 Things You Should Know About Disability in Education for Veterans

The items below are commonly overlooked pieces of information that may help you understand student veterans with disabilities.

1) Instance of disability is higher in student veterans.

32% of all Post-9/11 era veterans have a service-connected disability compared to the 17.4% of all other eras combined.  Approximately 1 in 2 student veterans are reported as having a disability of some kind. This indicates that education is used as a transition and rehabilitation tool. This claim is supported anecdotally by student veterans.

2) Veterans are unaware of self-disclosure requirements of Section 504.

Veterans are recruited into military service for their health and are likely to have no exposure to Special Education or disability-related supports in education. The Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Administration (VA) prioritize treatment, not prevention or education. This means that veterans are coming onto campus unaware of critical support services. Solution: Disability service outreach to this student population is important.

3) Veterans may not know if they have a disability.

Honesty is a core value in military and veteran culture.  They may have filed a disability claim, but the VA may not have made a determination.  They may also be in the appeals process awaiting adjudication.  Solution: Consider offering temporary/interim accommodations/services until a VA determination is made.

4) The VA determines disability through an actuary model.

VA disability ratings are designed to determine benefit entitlements, not ability. This means the higher the rating the more loss the VA is compensating the veteran for. A more familiar model to non- veterans is short and long-term disability insurance.

5) VA has three major divisions.

Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and National Cemetery Administration (NCA). By design, VHA and VBA do not share information. VBA manages entitlements, such as GI Bill and disability compensation. Physician documentation may be found online through ebenefits.va.gov and eliminates the need to make a medical appointment.

6) The GI Bill is a book of many chapters.

Chapter 31, VA Vocational Rehabilitation (VAVR), requires veterans to have a 30% disability rating or more for eligibility. The other half-dozen chapters don’t have the disability requirement. This means that all VAVR clients have a disability of some kind.

7) The GI Bill has a tutoring allowance.

Tutoring Assistance is a supplement to the GI Bill. It defrays the cost of tutoring when a veteran is deficient in a subject and is attending school at half-time or more.

8) VA workstudy program.

An added benefit of the GI Bill is VA workstudy. It’s fully-funded by the VA, it gives veterans a tax-free income source, and work experience. Consider creating a position for a veteran so your office can connect with more veterans. Consider the power of a peer and the tribal culture of veterans on this one.

9) Every Purple Heart recipient was injured, but not everyone injured receives a Purple Heart.

The Purple Heart is awarded only to those wounded in a designated combat zone. Injuries sustained outside of that zone, such as in training accidents, disease, and conditions aggravated by military service may have a service-connected disability rating with the VA, but don’t qualify for a Purple Heart.

10) The most underused services by student veterans.

Disability services, counseling services, academic advising, tutoring, and career services are used infrequently by student veterans. If a veteran sees a peer using these services, they are more likely to use them also. Solution: The message here is about helping veterans help each other. Providing information about disability-related services to your student veteran organization on campus is an excellent method of outreach.

Spotlight: Maureen Elias

Maureen Elias is a mother to three children on the autism spectrum, wife of a U.S. Army Captain, full time mental health counseling graduate student at Bowie State University (BSU), President of the Student Veterans Association at BSU, Vice President of the BSU Graduate Student Association, 2017 Fort Meade Base Spouse of the Year, veteran advocate, and a veteran with disabilities.  She is slated to graduate in May 2018, after which, her family will immediately move to an unknown location.  Her husband’s permanent change of station (PCS) orders is the basis for the transition; a familiar element of the military that makes for a somewhat unsettled life.  Maureen also served in the Army as a counterintelligence agent for five years and thoroughly enjoyed her time in the service.  Unfortunately, some injuries obtained in Advanced Individual Training (AIT) degraded to the point where she had to end her time in the service with a medical discharge.  She looks forward to finishing her degree and working with veterans as a mental health counselor and advocate. 

She had been out of the service for almost a decade before pursuing her master’s degree.  Maureen dismissed the struggles she had heard about for veterans attending a university; figuring they wouldn't apply to her.  Feeling isolated, she contemplated dropping out six weeks into the program.  A majority of her classmates were considerably younger, with little to no life experience beyond high school.  The veteran population at her school was nearly invisible.  It took her almost six months to find out about a small center for veterans on campus.  Once she began spending time at the veteran lounge, she had the opportunity to meet and speak with other student veterans going through similar experiences.  She met the student veteran association faculty advisor who began connecting her with resources on campus.

As a student veteran with disabilities, one of her most difficult struggles was asking for academic accommodations.  Already feeling out of place as a nontraditional student, she didn’t want to stand out even more.  Due to an injury to her wrists, she takes tests on a computer instead of handwritten form.  A physical injury forces her to stand and sit as needed during lectures.  Instead of policies already in place, she has to renegotiate terms with each professor as to how her accommodations will be implemented.  Working with the student disability coordinator isn’t easy.  “Advocating for others feels natural, but I struggle with the concept when it comes to advocating for my needs.  In the military, you put the needs of others above your own.”  That mindset defines a team player, and every veteran strives to serve the team, by avoiding being an individual. 

“Personnel in higher-ed would benefit from military and veteran cultural competency”, said Maureen.  A simple and effective way of doing this is to connect with veterans on campus.  All veterans acquire their injuries during or after their military service.  This is known because the military screens recruits for their health prior to enlistment.  That said, veterans with disabilities face certain disadvantage when they attend college.  They don’t always want or know to self-identify.  They may not understand what self-identification would serve, or whom to speak with for academic accommodations.  They may struggle with a sense of shame or guilt if they self-identify.  Consider providing an overview of disability services and the accommodations process to your campus veterans resource center or student veteran organization.  Tailor the information in relatable terms by showing what various accommodations are available, how accommodations can’t fundamentally alter their coursework or program study, and avoiding assumptions about disability in education for veterans.