Turning Words Into Actions
Written by: Dan Standage, SVA's Director of Disability in Education.
Have you ever known someone who lives payday to payday, but routinely celebrates at a local bar or club? Do you live in a neighborhood with a community space, and the one neighbor whose yard is a complete wreck, is constantly complaining about the homeowner's association (HOA) not doing a better job? How about your middle school PE coach, who could have been Paul Blart Mall Cop, and insisted that you take yet another lap? Ironic isn't it? The irony is prevalent in the disability space too. On July 26th, the United States celebrated the 26th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This important piece of legislation helps ensure people with disabilities are given the same opportunities as people without disabilities. It's not meant to be Robin Hood; taking away from the non-disabled and giving to the disabled. However, the perception of the ADA and people with disabilities tends to be negative.
The military and veterans space is no exception. Many who are recruited to serve have no experience with disabilities. The Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) disqualifies recruits if any health-related issues are discovered. For young men and women who go through this process, disability is a negative thing. Cultural training, by way of basic training, teaches young recruits that falling below any standard is failing. Falling below the standard means you're letting down the whole team and putting national security at risk. Disability continues to be framed as a negative thing and reinforced throughout military service. For those who acquire a disability while serving, there's a process to determine if continued service is an option. Depending on the severity, the person will be segregated and then separated. Disability continues to get bad tattoos on its stereotype.
Service members who become veterans, carry the military culture into their lives, because there's no cultural training that teaches civilian reintegration. For those who didn't plan well for their transition, the GI Bill offers a unique bridge, providing a stipend while paying for school. This is where things get really interesting. Veterans who file a claim against the VA don't see disability as a negative. Disability compensation provides non-reportable, tax-free income and other benefits, with income and benefits increasing as the service-connected disability rating increases. This information is passed along similar to a family secret, Masonic knowledge, or religious teachings. Everyone knows about the process, and veteran service organizations do pro bono work to help navigate the claims and appeals processes. Conversely, very little consistent information on disability in the academic space reaches student veterans. Some campuses are better than others, but considering that more than 40% of Post-9/11 era veterans have a service-connected disability, but less than 5% register with disability services on campus, it's safe to say that the good word isn't getting to veterans.
By this point, the disability stereotype is rocking a face tattoo. Postsecondary education is the training ground for an eventual career. This means that veterans will carry the negative stereotype of disability into the workplace. A caveat to this is if the student veteran successfully completes their education goals. Many don't know how disability translates into an academic setting, the purpose of accommodations, why they should be registered with disability services, and why it's important to identify as having a disability in school and after. By now, you're probably wondering what all of this has to do with the ADA anniversary. Instead of just talking about it here as an awareness campaign, I want to make this conversation meaningful. I want you to do something more than merely read this or even just talk about the ADA, and contribute something consequential. The side effect of your actions is the awareness, not the other way around. So as not to leave you on your own, below are some great ways to celebrate the ADA.
Make your social media more accessible.
As an individual, you can spell out acronyms followed by the acronym in parentheses, briefly describe photos, and use camel-case in hashtags (first letter of each word is capitalized) for easier reading. If you're a Chapter leader or in charge of your organization's social media, employ these techniques in your daily work and encourage others to be more mindful. Make sure you're not aggressive in this approach, so you're not adding another tattoo to the stereotype. Want to go to the next level? Check out this Social Media Accessibility Toolkit.
Convert documents to editable text.
A piece of paper that is scanned in is an image of that text. You can test the document by highlighting a few words with your cursor. If you can't highlight a few words, you can run the document through a process called, optical character recognition (OCR). The OCR process "looks" at the text and creates a document that you can edit in a word processor, or speak with a computer's text-to-speech engine. Acrobat Pro (not the reader) does a great job, but it costs money for the software. There are many free OCR options for Mac and Windows platforms, just search for "OCR" download, and give it a try. There's even mobile versions (free & paid) that have the same functionality. Making a document accessible allows you to search the document, create spoken documents (great for listening to a study guide while driving or walking your favorite pet), and reducing document file size.
Locate your institution's disability services representative.