On Veteran’s Day last week, I bought a poppy from a veteran outside my grocery store, to help disabled veterans, and I thought, “I bet a lot of disabled veterans are affected by issues you can’t readily see.” Then I got taken down by this virus that’s still trying to hold me down, and that column didn’t get written on time.
Today, a little late, I honor the veterans. And disability is all year round, not just November 11.
Disability and veterans are a familiar pairing. Everyone knows that stirring of the heart when you see a young war veteran using a wheelchair or a prosthetic leg. But not every disability is visible. I had a boss in the 90s who had fought in Vietnam and become almost completely deaf from lead poisoning. Chelation therapy restored his cognitive function, but not his hearing, and he still had other health problems from the lead exposure.
This topic could be mined for weeks, but I have two purposes today: one, to let the veterans in my audience know I see you, and two, to give non-veterans an overview of the issues faced by disabled veterans.
The top 10 most common disability claims by veterans are:
- Bilateral hearing loss
- Tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ears)
- Limited knee flexion
- Lumbar and cervical strains
- Paralysis of the sciatic nerve
- Limited ankle mobility
- Degenerative arthritis of the spine
Of these top 10, 6 are potentially invisible. And this is just one list. Other invisible issues include TBI (traumatic brain injury), depression, and substance abuse problems.
In addition to an overloaded and underfunded VA system, there are other barriers to getting help for these problems, the biggest of which is stigma. In the hypermasculine culture of the military, many people don’t want to admit they’re dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues. They’ve internalized the false message that mental health problems indicate weakness, so they try to tough it out on their own. Even physical issues like migraines can be stigmatized this way. You can’t prove a migraine the way can prove that your knee won’t bend.
Veterans with disabilities face an unemployment rate more than double the general population. Veterans whose disabilities can be verified as service-connected do far better with preferential hiring policies, but many veterans can’t conclusively prove their disability is service-related. (Should that matter?)
Employers have trouble accommodating the “signature disabilities” of Gulf-era veterans: PTSD, TBI, and depression. Even harder than accommodating these issues would be working with them, but working isn’t optional for many veterans. We’ve all seen what happens to veterans who can’t work and don’t receive sufficient benefits.
Veterans face even more barriers to living full and productive lives with disabilities than those who haven’t served. And when the disabilities are invisible and difficult to prove, or tie to their service, that makes it even harder. Their service record should remove barriers, not create more of them.
It feels a little wrong for me to be explaining veterans’ issues when I have not served. Before I give the floor over to the veterans in the comments section, let me express my sincere appreciation for your service and your presence here in my audience.
ADA National Network Fact Sheet. 2019. https://adata.org/factsheet/employment-data-veterans-disabilities. Queried November 19, 2019.
Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD. 2019. https://cck-law.com/blog/10-most-common-disabilities-for-veterans/. Queried November 18, 2019.
PsychArmor. 2019. https://psycharmor.org/courses/what-are-invisible-wounds/ Education course description. Queried November 19, 2019.