Most college students know about the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA). A few even know this was amended in 2008 as the ADA Amendments Act. Another group might know about Ed Roberts, who integrated UC-Berkeley in the 1970s, or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was the first federal law to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in higher education (especially at public colleges and universities). But very few people know about the role that veterans played in opening up disability access at colleges and universities.
While getting my Master’s at the University of Minnesota, I wrote a paper about “The Rehabs” (as they were identified) – the WWII vets with disabilities who went to the U of MN on the G.I. Bill. Campuses across the country were flooded with vets (see picture of crowded classroom below).
Many colleges and universities were shocked to realize they were getting vets with disabilities, and they didn’t know how to deal with them! As a result, they cobbled together professionals working with disabled children, rehabilitation professionals, medical professionals, psychologists…pretty much anyone they could find. They had these campus-based people work with the veteran’s bureaus to figure out what we would now call “disability accommodations.” This was the first generation of disability services offices, which are now found on nearly every campus.
Some campuses were even ahead of their time, and started thinking about how to make the campus itself more accessible. Laws like Section 504 and the ADA have made it commonplace to think about changing the environment, instead of assuming people with disabilities are just problematic people who should overcome whatever ails them. So some campuses, most notably the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, went out of their way to make wheelchair-accessible campuses, to have athletic groups for wheelchair users, or to have clubs for vets with disabilities.
Now a new generation of vets is entering higher education. These veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are coming in on the second generation of the GI Bill, and are often called “Wounded Warriors.” Many of these vets also have disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from numerous tours of duty, brain injuries from explosive devices, and physical injuries. Disability services is having to adjust, once again needing to work with veterans’ bureaus (or Veteran’s Affairs) and VA Hospitals. Professionals are re-evaluating whether current practices with brain injuries and mental illness are working, or if they need to evolve with the times. (For more information about how disability services offices are adjusting, check out a special issue on veterans by the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability.)
Like many, I long for peace and am conflicted about the wars we choose to join and the international conflicts we choose to ignore. But I am eternally grateful for what veterans do – and that they are willing to offer their life for my safety and security. I am the friend, professor, aunt, niece, daughter, and sister of veterans, and know many who serve. But today I honor vets with disabilities in particular, for opening up higher education so I could get a good education, and for pushing higher education even further so disabled students of tomorrow can benefit, as well. They fought abroad and then they fought on our campuses at home, in ways that are seldom acknowledged. I hope some people reading this will choose to stand with them and support greater inclusion and integration of people with disabilities on their campuses. There is still much work to be done and many battles to be fought. They don’t need to fight this battle alone.