July 26th, 2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The landmark legislation firmly stated that discrimination based on disabilities will no longer be tolerated, establishing guidelines and regulations for an inclusive and accessible world.
The passage and revisions to the ADA demonstrates the importance for civilians and Veterans groups to unite for a common cause. When originally proposed in the 1980s, Senator Bob Dole, a combat disabled WWII Veteran, numerous paralyzed Vietnam Veterans, and Veteran Service Organizations advocated and educated Congress and the public on the importance for comprehensive disability rights. Continuing to carry the torch, Veteran Service Organizations, like Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and the Blinded Veterans Association, unite their memberships to fight for equality for all persons with disabilities.
The multitude of disabled Veterans fuel these efforts, since our culture stipulates that I shall never leave a comrade behind. The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics states that in 2013 3,743,259 Veterans possessed a military service connected disability rating. These ratings includes minor conditions like scars and joint stiffness to sensory impairments and traumatic brain injuries. Nearly 1/3 of these Veterans, 1,139,815 Veterans, received a VA disability rating of 70% or more, indicating a severe disability.
Since September 11, 2001, over 2.5 million Service Members and Veterans supported the Global War on Terrorism. Amongst these, the Department of Defense reports over 51,000 Veterans sustained a poly trauma injury, while the Department of Veterans Affairs cites around one million Veterans claimed medical conditions related to military service.
In Vietnam, roughly 3.4 million deployed to Southeast Asia, with 303,704 injuries. Of these, over 75,000 Vietnam Veterans received a disability rating of 100% or more. Sadly, Vietnam Veterans still face the legacy of this conflict through health conditions from Agent Orange.
For disabled Veterans, our benefits and entitlements from the Department of Veterans Affairs do not create accessible and inclusive environments, it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those benefits and entitlements are just a piece of the transitioning puzzle. The ADA protects our ability to pursue our dreams, whether in higher education, employment, or simply engaging local goods and services.
How can a blinded Veteran use their GI Bill benefits, if not for the accessibility reforms ushered into institutions of higher learning by the ADA?
The GI Bill serves as a recruitment and retention tool for the military, by promising Service Members educational benefits in return for military service. It’s the ADA that ensures my admissions does not hinge upon my blindness, but motivation for a degree. It’s the ADA I can turn towards to advocate for accessible materials and web-based tools. It’s the ADA that creates disability accommodations offices ensuring I possess the necessary resources for success.
How can a blinded Veteran obtain and retain gainful employment, without the ADA?
My military experience and education enables me to entice employers with a resume riddled solid examples of leadership, ethics, and ability to problem solve. However, it’s the ADA that allows me to elect to disclose my blindness to employers, due to commonly held stigmas. It’s the ADA that states one cannot discriminate in the workplace, and reasonable accommodations must be provided. It’s the ADA that allows me to ensure transportation services meet my needs for independent travel to work or business travel throughout the country.
How can a blinded Veteran enter restaurants, stores, and other areas of public accommodations with a Service Dog, without the ADA?
The ADA, as revised in 2010, ensures that my Guide Dog and I have the right to enter a store, take a Uber taxi, and enjoy a restaurant, without fear of ejection. The Americans with Disabilities Act even influenced legislation enabling Veterans to bring Service Animals into VA facilities. In 2010, the ADA and Department of Justice updated Service Animal definitions and access policies. While the VA resides outside the jurisdiction of the ADA, Service Animal advocates inserted language into the 2012, Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Act, that expanded the protections for Veterans to use their Service Dogs inside VA facilities.
In conclusion, when we became a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine, we took an oath to defend every American’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, we did not realize that a disability pitted us in a never-ending war against our fellow Americans just to enjoy our basic freedoms. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, we disabled Veterans possess the battle plans and allies to cast down stereotypes related to disabilities and prove we are of value to society as peers.
This is an excerpt from remarks of mine during a panel presentation on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information about the ADA’s impact on disabled Veterans, refer to the below links.