Veterans with Disabilities: New Implications for Social Research and Policy Evaluation

RESNA 28th Annual Conference - Atlanta, Georgia

Lynzee Head, MS

RERC on Workplace Accommodations – Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332


The recent military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left over 10,000 American troops wounded. These young soldiers (average age 19 years) will return to a society with technologies and legislation to reintegrate them into the workforce. They will likely face the same barriers to employment faced by millions of people with disabilities. By studying this population of individuals, policymakers and rehabilitation professionals have the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts, workplace accommodations and other disability policies and make improvements that could enhance the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities.


 Disabilities, employment, policy, veterans


 According to a National Organization on Disability (NOD) Harris Poll, there is a 65 percent unemployment rate among persons with disabilities, as compared to an unemployment rate of 22 percent for people without disabilities (1). Policymakers have attempted to reduce barriers to employment for people with disabilities; however, the population of employed people with disabilities continually remains low. Recent combat activity in Iraq and Afghanistan has left a young population of veterans with disabilities who need to be reintegrated into the workforce, and need help in finding careers that will utilize their military specialties while accommodating their newly acquired disability (or disabilities).


 Recent media reports have focused on the number of fatalities sustained in battle, rather than on the wounded. As of January 11, 2005, an estimated total of 10,796 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan (2). New technologies in battlefield protection, faster evacuation and improved medical techniques have increased both the number of lives saved in combat as well as the number of nonfatal casualties resulting in disabling injuries. As of November 2004, more than 150 service personnel in OIF and OEF had had limbs amputated (3). Studied over a 14-month period, 52% suffered extremity injuries and twenty percent of soldiers wounded in OIF and OEF suffered potentially lethal wounds to the head and neck (4). From January to August 2004, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed Military Hospital treated 355 patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

While physical injuries are the most readily apparent impacts of war on soldiers, additional non-visible casualties are increasing. Deployment stressors and exposure to combat often result in mental health problems such as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, substance abuse, impairment in social functioning and in the ability to work, and also lead to an increased use of health care services.”(5) A recent study presented evidence that more than 1 in 6 soldiers are leaving Iraq with major depression, generalized anxiety or PTSD. The study indicated a strong correlation between certain combat experiences and developing PTSD. Findings of the study also reported that only 23-40 percent of the soldiers studied are seeking treatment for mental health problems. Barriers to treatment in the group of soldiers studied included the stigma of receiving mental health care and a general lack of knowledge of the availability of mental health services (5).

The average age of a soldier stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan is 19 years old (5). The soldiers sustaining injuries in Iraq are different from their non-Iraq veteran counterparts because they are being treated for injuries sustained in combat and their average age is 38.4 years younger (6). These veterans, unlike their counterparts from previous conflicts, are coming home to a society with technological advances (such as assistive technology, high-tech prosthetics) and policies that will allow them to more easily integrate into the workplace than ever before. However, questions arise as to how these service-men and -women will navigate the complex system of VA benefits and vocational rehabilitation, not to mention the benefits and services offered through the Department of Defense (DOD), which are aimed at finding them suitable employment.


 This population of young soldiers with recently acquired disabilities provides significant opportunities for social research and policy evaluation. Because these individuals acquired their disabilities at (approximately) the same time from combat overseas, they present an interesting population for longitudinal study. By comparing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with and without disabilities over the course of several years, we can examine their employment trajectories to yield new insights about the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs and policies, particularly in the area of employment. For instance, a veteran injured in Iraq might find new employment opportunities, develop new skills and obtain education with the assistance of various government programs that he/she might not have discovered had they not acquired a disability.

From a policy perspective, this population of individuals is unique because they have added the face of youth and the otherwise healthy to the disability rights movement. Given that these individuals are young, energetic, vibrant, and have the rest of their lives to live with a disability, they could significantly influence legislation and regulation in the disability policy arena. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with disabilities could have an increased impact when it comes to lobbying efforts on behalf of the disability community. Given the number of injured soldiers that will be searching for work after completing rehabilitation, this group could have a strong voice when lobbying for increased funding for the VA’s department of vocational rehabilitation – asking the government to invest in strategic planning to streamline vocational rehabilitation to assist a veteran over the course of his/her lifetime. This group could also be successful in lobbying for an increase in funding for research on various forms of assistive technology, which could result in significant spillover benefits for all people with disabilities. One recent policy example the could result in future lobbying action by veterans is the VA’s 2003 elimination of healthcare benefits for veterans whose income exceeded $30,000 per year (although veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are entitled to two years free healthcare from the VA) (3).

Obtaining employment can be difficult for veterans, particularly if they have acquired a service-related disability. Veterans, like many other people with disabilities, may encounter barriers to employment such as employer misconceptions about the cost of accommodations required by Title I of the ADA, and misperceptions about the abilities of employees with disabilities. Some employers do not realize that military specialties offer knowledge that can be transferred to the civilian workforce. Also, a lack of awareness of organizations that can help by providing information on how to accommodate veterans (and other people) with disabilities complicates the issue. Employers may also be unaware of the financial benefits and tax incentives offered by the VA for hiring veterans with disabilities.

The injuries caused by the war in Iraq can mean several things to vocational and rehabilitation professionals. First, they will be working with a population of people with newly acquired disabilities who are not necessarily familiar with the laws and services available to help them. It is up to rehabilitation professionals to familiarize themselves with laws such as the ADA and the services provided by the VA such as vocational rehabilitation. Injured service-men and women may not realize that they are entitled to reasonable accommodation in the workplace under the ADA. Second, this population (given their average age) has limited work experience. The skills they acquired in the military may no longer be relevant when it comes to choosing a career post-injury. Third, this population could be an excellent population for study by rehabilitation professionals.

The increased numbers of veterans suggest a potential area of high visibility for the disability community. Addressing their reintegration into society in general and dealing with issues of employment specifically, imparts a viable area for policy action. Policy initiatives that preemptively craft solutions benefit individuals, employers and society at large. By studying this population of individuals, policymakers and rehabilitation professionals have the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts, workplace accommodations and other disability policies and make improvements that could enhance the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities.


  1. National Organization on Disability (2004). “Key Indicators from the 2004 N.O.D./ Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities.” []
  2. U.S. Department of Defense (2004). “OIF/OEF Casualty Status as of January 11, 2005.” Retrieved January 2005 from []
  3. U.S. News and World Report. (2004). “Cheating Grim Death.” 137:4.
  4. Xydakis, M.S. (2004). “Analysis of Battlefield Head and Neck Injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.” American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Annual Meeting, New York, NY.
  5. Hoge, C., C. Castro, S. Messer, D. McGurk, D. Cotting, R. Koffman (2004). “Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care.” New England J. of Medicine. 351, 1: 13-21
  6. U.S. Census Bureau (2003). “Veterans: 2000.” (Publication C2KBR-22).


 The author would like to thank Dr. Paul Baker, Dr. Michael Williams and Alan Bakowski for their thoughtful suggestions. This research was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) grant # H133E020720.


Lynzee Head, MS
GCATT, 250 14 th St., NW
Atlanta, GA 30318
Office Phone (404) 385-4075