Education And The Disabled Veteran

Army veteran James Hinton is back with another great post– this time it’s practical advice on handling your education after the military!  

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When I left the military owing to disability I found myself in a bit of a fix. Though I had my army training and skills, and years of experience with them, I was distinctly lacking in the things that the civilian world could recognize. Sure, I’d been an NCO with demonstrated leadership skills under fire. But I didn’t have a degree, and without that, I wasn’t getting interviews.

Logo of the Post 9-11 GI Bill Yellow Ribbon program

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I already wrote about what I could have done while still in the military to avoid that situation, so I don’t need to repeat the story here. Instead, I’m simply going to state that, being in that situation, I bit the bullet and did what I had to do. I grabbed my ruck, filled it with textbooks, and began sitting in classrooms full of 19 and 20-year-olds to obtain the degree that I needed.

Today I would like to share some of the lessons I learned as a disabled veteran going to school. I’m going to try to focus on generally applicable lessons, as opposed to some of the more specific details in the hopes this will help provide aid to other disabled vets who are preparing to take the same path I did. Please keep this in mind, as every situation will have unique wrinkles, so treat these as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules.

You’re Going to Have Some Disadvantages

To begin with, let’s simply get this out of the way. You are going to face challenges that many of your fellow students won’t. Going into the process of obtaining your degree you’re going to need to be aware of these things so that you can be mentally prepared for them.

For starters, you have a different life experience than them. Most of your fellow students are going to be fresh off the farm, and between 18 and 22. Even if you only made it two or three years before your injury resulted in separation, the things you have seen and done will set you worlds apart. This is all the more true for someone who has completed an entire enlistment or two, and thus have a generational gap as well as an experiential gap.

This can impact more than just casual conversations in between classes. As part of my pursuit of a degree, I attended a history class. While discussing military campaigns or cultural understandings relative to their place and time my thirty-something-three-combat-tour-twelve-nations-three-continents veteran experience led to very different perspectives than those of many of the students around me. At times this could lead to significant disagreements during class-time discussions.

Then there is the fact that you are disabled. For some, the disability is physical, for others it is mental, and unfortunately for many both are in play. Your college experience is going to be impacted by this fact.

If you have physical disabilities they will likely make attending classes a bit more of a challenge. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that campuses be accessible, and schools tend to be very good about complying with that. This doesn’t change that wheelchairs are harder to maneuver through crowds, hearing damage can make it harder to understand instructions in group exercises, and institutional chairs aren’t comfortable for those with spinal injuries. You’re going to have to factor these things in as you plan your course of action.

Mental disabilities aren’t any easier to deal with in educational settings. If anything, they make things more difficult. Traumatic Brain Injuries caused by IEDs can result in a decreased ability to pay attention during lectures or to understand the information given out. PTSD can result in significant education-hindering anxiety when surrounded by large crowds of chattering young students. Some of your professors and fellow students may have trouble “getting” why you find some things difficult that they take for granted.

You’re Going to Have Some Advantages

It is not all bad news by any stretch of the imagination. For all of the disadvantages you face, you also have advantages that will help you through the education process that many of your younger, more inexperienced classmates lack.

For one, you will have lived a far more diverse life than most of them. While they are attempting to apply a relatively sheltered and limited life experience to lessons about diverse topics, cultures, and professions, you will have interacted with people from a wide array of cultures and backgrounds, likely will have spent time in multiple nations, and worked in very diverse circumstances. It will be easier for you to integrate new ideas and understand different perspectives.

You are also coming from a background that has required discipline and planning. You know how to plan and accomplish a mission, and that will give you a serious leg up. Understand that achieving an education is a mission, fulfilling the requirements for the degree is the mission objective, and the backwards planning that is military standard for planning any op is just as useful for ensuring you can get into all required classes in the proper order to not come up short at the end.

There are also a number of opportunities you have that other students won’t. The GI Bill is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to paying for school. Various service organizations have scholarships that are vet only, and you may also be able to qualify for various VA programs, such as vocational rehabilitation, depending on circumstances.

You Have Alternatives

Today’s student has a number of new opportunities that previously had never existed. Many of them seem almost tailor-made for the disabled vet. The most obvious of these would be online classes.

While achieving my degree, I was able to enroll in a few online classes. I had expected them to be basic “watch a video, read a book, write a few papers to send by e-mail” sorts of affairs. The reality was that both the diverse nature of the classes and the rigor of their educational value surprised me.

Certainly, there were asynchronous, self-paced classes that relied on selected videos and readings. With the hearing problems, I have these proved boons. Video lectures could be rewound so I could repeat dialogue I had missed the first time, and readings were ideal for an avid bibliophile like myself.

In addition to these types of classes, however, there were also classes that were surprising in their choice of platform. My particular university held some classes in the social media MMO game platform Second Life. Using cartoon-like avatars, students from around the world could meet together in a virtual face-to-face situation to engage in discussions, class exercises, and participate in group projects.

Many of the classes tended to be a mix of the two styles, requiring some form of real-time chat capability in combination with discussions on forums or through mailing lists. Many schools have some courses available through online formats. Some have even gone so far as to have entire degrees online, such as USC Dornsife’s GIS degree, or Norwich’s MSN program. Rutgers has even created an entire school of online-only education.

Regardless of whether they were asynchronous video/book and e-mail based classes or scheduled, virtual world classroom settings, I found that my particular disabilities, physical and mental alike, were far better accommodated through these classes than even the most ADA compliant building on campus. I could take my time through video lectures, repeating things I’d had trouble hearing the first time, I could kick back in chairs my spine preferred, and group exercises were not PTSD triggers, as the safety of a firewall precluded any sense of risk or danger from fellow students.

That’s just formal university alternatives. Other educational possibilities are certification or licensure programs. Enrollment in trade programs can often result in smaller class sizes and hands-on programs more akin to military MOS training schools than to a university setting. A prosthetic leg might bar you from the Army, but it might not be a limiter at all in lineman college. Hearing aids may have ended your career as a radio repairman for the Navy, but even hearing impairment can’t stop you from getting licensed for a career in Radio Communication.

Education with a Disability is Possible

Look, I’m not saying that getting an education is easy for a disabled vet. There are physical and mental speedbumps that disabled vets have to deal with every day, and the educational environment is no exception to that.

But I am saying it is possible. In fact, in some ways, we have advantages over the younger, more abled set. We’ve got drive they often haven’t had the chance to develop, and a diversity of ways to look at things they lack.

It just requires a recognition of our particular challenges, and planning around them. We can embrace new methods of learning that are tailor-made for our specific limitations and explore careers that are not off limits like they once would have been.

We can do it. So let’s get out there and get educated.

Related articles:
Preparing For The Unexpected
Legal Presumption Of Disability For Veterans
How Do Veterans File A PTSD Claim?

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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