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Disabled Veterans: A Guide To Discrimination, Other Barriers, And Resources

Disabled veterans, or those veterans who are facing debilitating illness or injury post-combat, may face great challenges when they return home — challenges beyond the scope of their injuries. These could include barriers to adequate treatment, discrimination in the civilian world, lack of access to resources, and more.

Disabled Veterans Guide

Disabled Veterans Guide

In the United States in 2020, there were 4.7 million veterans with a service-connected disability — or a debilitating injury they incurred during active duty service, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Yet in 2021, only 3.9 million veterans received disability compensation payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), according to the United States Census Bureau. 

Why the disparity in the number of disabled veterans and the number who receive compensation for their injuries? While veterans with debilitating injuries are allowed to seek compensation for their injuries and the expenses the injuries will inevitably incur, the VA assigns a ‘disability rating’ to wounded veterans in order to determine compensation benefits. 

Veterans with at least a 30% rating, for example, may receive disability benefits as well as additional pay for dependents, including spouses and minor children, or adult children between the ages of 18-23 who are seeking higher education. Payments are dependent on a number of qualifying factors, including number of children.

In short, not all debilitating injuries qualify a veteran to receive additional compensation on top of their VA benefits. This can make it difficult for veterans and their families to make ends meet. Many wounded veterans must spend weeks or months in a medical center after returning home, and both medical expenses and home expenses can quickly mount. 

On top of these struggles, wounded veterans may face barriers during the transition phase, when they aim to return to daily life after the initial recovery period. Many catastrophic injuries can make it difficult for vets to perform daily tasks, get around their home, or, in some cases, care for themselves or their loved ones.

Veterans who have experienced a long-term or life-changing disability need a hand up, not a handout. Indeed, they require accessible living arrangements, access to jobs that not only accept but are excited to hire veterans who are differently abled, and financial assistance until they are able to restore their financial and personal independence once more.

Here, you will learn why veterans may have trouble accessing the care and resources they need and where to find the resources to bridge this gap.

The Scope of Disabled Veterans In The United States

According to the VA, the veteran population has been decreasing since 1990, yet the number of veterans with a service-connected disability has steadily increased — a 117% increase between 1990 and 2018. The VA also reports that the number of cash payments from the VA to veterans is outpacing the number of reported injured veterans. 

Here is what’s important to know regarding the number of veterans and disabled veterans in the United States:

  • The type of veterans are changing: Vietnam-era veterans accounted for the largest share of veterans until 2016, when this group was surpassed by Gulf War-era veterans. The VA reports, as of 2021, there are:
    • 7.8 million American Gulf War-era veterans
    • 5.9 million American Vietnam-era veterans
    • 933,000 American Korean Conflict-era veterans
    • 240,000 American World War II veterans
  • The decrease in veterans largely correlates to the decrease in active duty personnel: The number of active duty military has steadily declined since the end of the draft in 1973.
  • The employment rate of veterans with disabilities is much lower than that of veterans without disabilities: Only about one-third of veterans with service-connected disabilities are employ

Why Disabled Veterans Experience Lack of Appropriate Resources

In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019, half of all veteran respondents reported that they felt the VA was either doing only a fair or poor job. Only 9% of the veteran respondents said they felt the VA was doing an excellent job, and 37% percent felt the VA was doing a good job at administering support and benefits to veterans and their families. 

The VA alone cannot be blamed for the lack of resources for disabled veterans. Yet this first line of defense for veterans wounded in combat appears to be lacking the scope of resources necessary to provide adequate support to the ever-growing number of service-connected injured veterans. 

As mentioned above, the VA reports that it is already paying out high amounts of cash payments to veterans — more than ever before — even as the overall number of veterans declines. If the VA is paying out disability benefits at such high rates, why, then are so many disabled veterans lacking in resources to help them achieve the care they need to carry on with daily life?
While some believe that the VA has become too generous with its payouts, in truth, the VA is recognizing the vast scope of injuries combat can cause.

For example, sleep apnea is a condition that a veteran may experience post-combat — a condition that not only affects their sleep quality but their safety during sleep. This condition may affect the veteran long-term, disrupt their daily life (including ability to perform daily tasks due to lack of proper sleep), may require a costly sleep apnea mask to treat, and result in other effects. Because of these vast effects, this is one condition the VA could deem a debilitating injury and may grant a veteran with such a condition compensation to assist with related expenses.

The sheer scope of conditions which may affect veterans long-term due to their time served as active duty military members may mean that the VA will be ill-equipped to financially support all disabled veterans long-term. Veterans with disabilities which are not 100% debilitating may need to find financial support and other resources elsewhere.

The VA should always be a veteran’s first stop for support, especially financial support. But for those who find the VA comes up short in helping them with all of their needs, other resources exist which can provide a number of types of aid, from aid with medical care, to adaptive equipment free of charge, to recreational outing support.

How Discrimination Against Veterans Creates Disparities

Lack of resources may be due to difficulty in getting a veteran’s disability fully recognized as a medical condition worthy of support, but other barriers exist as well due to another issue: discrimination against veterans.

Veterans may experience discrimination in a number of ways, from discrimination in medical care to discrimination in the workplace. Stigmatic views can harm not only a veteran’s psyche, but their livelihood as well.

Not receiving proper medical treatment can get in the way of living a full and healthy life. Not being considered for a job opportunity can get in the way of veterans supporting themselves and/or their families. Discrimination is never acceptable, yet veterans may experience it at alarming rates.

Employers may consider veterans damaged by their wartime experience, may not want to deal with barriers a veteran experiences on a daily basis, such as PTSD flashbacks, or may become hostile or insensitive toward veterans during the hiring, training, or work processes.

Regardless of the reasons, discrimination against disabled vets can harm veterans’ well-being, create unnecessary barriers to their assimilation back into civilian life, and can inhibit their recovery progress overall.

Types of Discrimination Disabled Veterans Experience

There are no limits to the types of discrimination a disabled veteran may receive — and no shortage of need for resolutions to said barriers. Here are some of the most common types of discrimination veterans with disabilities may face:

  • Workplace discrimination: This may include passing over an able veteran for another candidate on the basis of their disability, treating the veteran unfairly once hired, not providing adequate working conditions for the veteran, and more. However, veterans have employment rights which cannot be breached.
  • Barriers to adequate medical treatment: While veterans are meant to receive proper medical care at all times through the VA, some may experience discrimination during treatment based on race, age, sex, or other factors. Yet civil rights protect against such forms of discrimination. Veterans who have experienced such barriers to treatment can file a civil complaint.
  • Gender discrimination: According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization (IAVA), the amount of male veterans is expected to decrease in coming years while the amount of female veterans will increase. Women veterans experience gaps in their care offered through the VA as well as being generally overlooked for their service time.
  • Racial discrimination: Discrimination on the basis of race is not exclusive to veterans, but it can create great barriers for disabled veterans, particularly when they experience racial discrimination during treatment or while trying to get a job.
  • Sexual orientation: If a disabled vet experiences discrimination based on their sexual orientation, they have several recourses. The VA only very recently began inclusion of LGBTQ-identifying individuals within its benefits, but these rights are now in place nonetheless. If a veteran cannot access these rights, or experiences discrimination, they may be able to take legal action, such as through the IAVA legal assistance program.
  • Religious discrimination: Veterans may also experience discrimination based on their religious status, either within the workplace, during medical care, or in other situations. The VA does prohibit discrimination based on religion, and veterans can report any instances of discrimination.

Important Rights for Disabled Veterans

Disabled American veterans have a number of rights, some of which they may not be aware. Here are some of the top rights for disabled veterans, provided by way of federal veteran protections:

  • Right to compensation: Veterans with a confirmed disability may have the right to compensation. Remember: Many levels of disability apply, from more minor disabilities to life-changing injuries. Veterans can seek compensation through the VA.
  • Right to non-discriminatory workplace: Veterans cannot be fired, overlooked as applicants, overlooked for a promotion, or overlooked as re-hires solely because they are veterans.
  • Right as a ‘protected veteran’: A veteran cannot be harassed, paid less, or treated unfairly because they are a veteran, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
  • Right to file a civil complaint: Any veteran who experiences discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or veteran status can file a civil complaint.

What Can Be Done To Bridge The Resource Gap For Disabled Veterans?

Many legislative changes are needed to help expand adequate treatment services within the VA to ensure all injured veterans receive the care, financial support, and other resources they need to succeed in their recovery.

For example, women veterans continue to lack adequate care when seeking treatment through the VA, while people of color may experience racial discrimination when seeking medical care. Organizations which provide federally funded care to veterans have a long way to go in helping ensure veterans can access the care they need — free from discrimination or other barriers.

Fortunately, organizations such as the IAVA are working hard to fight for veterans’ rights and change legislation surrounding VA medical care and funding to improve these issues and find long-term resolutions.

So, what can be done in the meantime to help current veterans seek the support they need to succeed in transition? The following resources provide a range of supportive services, from financial support to home aid to adaptive equipment, to help disabled veterans find lasting solutions for their injuries and related issues.

Top Resources For Disabled Veterans

The resources listed here are broken down by categories specific to veterans with disabilities. Browse this list to help a wounded veteran loved one.

Resources Specific to Disabled Veterans

Transportation Services:

Drive for Hope: A Hope for the Warriors initiative, this project offers a unique service to veterans experiencing a transition gap: transportation services. Disabled veterans who have experienced a catastrophic injury can count on this service for training in adaptive vehicles, allowing them to reclaim their independence through their ability to drive.Stress Management Services:

Resilient Warrior Course — This six-week, virtual program teaches veterans and their families how to manage stress through relaxation techniques, including meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises. It also teaches adaptive strategies for stress management in both the short term and long term.

Recreation and Respite Services:

USO Warrior and Family Centers: In 2003, the USO opened its first USO Warrior Center, dubbed a “Home Away from Home” for wounded and disabled veterans and their families in Landstuhl, Germany. Here, veterans can take part in a number of recreational activities and supportive services between medical appointments, since the center is located close to the medical center.

Since its inception, the USO has added a number of other Warrior and Family Centers, including one in Bethesda, Maryland and one at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. In these facilities, injured veterans can take advantage of such activities as educational classes, healing gardens, sports lounges, outdoor barbeques, massage therapy, and much more.

Gary Sinise Foundation Invincible Spirit Festivals: Each festival provides a fair-like event to offer injured and disabled veterans and their families a respite from medical treatments and other rigors of daily transitional life. Festival days offer live cookouts, live veteran band performances, and much more.

Operation Second Chance, Morale Program: Veterans with catastrophic injuries may require long-term stays in hospitals. OSC helps get them out and about to restore their sense of independence and morale. OSC coordinators transport veterans to major sporting events and other programs, where they are given VIP treatment and accessible services at all times.

Service Dog Access:

Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us: A sector of Puppies Behind Bars, this program employs help from incarcerated individuals to raise and train puppies to serve combat veterans who return with injuries or disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Puppies in the program live with the incarcerated trainer for 24 months, learning all 85 of the basic commands necessary to become a service dog for veterans, as well as five commands developed specifically to help the dogs serve combat survivors.

Freedom Service Dogs of America: Disabled veterans with mobility issues can apply to receive a service dog that has been trained on up to 65 tasks to assist their handler. Veterans must agree to take a two-week course on handling the service dog and must be able to commit to caring for the service dog’s basic needs, such as exercise and bathroom breaks. Tasks these service dogs can complete for the veteran include:

  • Opening/closing drawers
  • Turning on lights
  • Finding keys, phones, or other personal items
  • Pushing emergency alert buttons

Adaptability Services:

Adaptive Housing

Gary Sinise Foundation R.I.S.E. Program: Severely wounded and disabled veterans can apply to this program, which provides specially adapted smart homes. These homes aim to address the unique needs veterans and their families face due to the veteran’s injuries, alleviating stress associated with home accessibility and helping to restore the veteran’s sense of independence. All homes are provided mortgage-free to veterans and their families.

Homes for Our Troops: This organization specifically targets severely injured and disabled veterans. They custom-design homes to ensure the homes are adaptable for amputees, handicap-accessible, or accessible for those with traumatic brain injuries. All homes are mortgage-free.

Semper Fi & America’s Fund Housing Assistance Program: Access to an accommodating home is the focus of this program, which offers services from basic home modifications to full home makeovers for severely wounded and disabled veterans. Services could include:

  • Fence building
  • Installing wheelchair ramps
  • Widening hallways and walkways to make room for wheelchairs
  • Updating showers and bathrooms to make them more accessible

Adaptive Transportation

Semper Fi & America’s Fund Transportation Services: Veterans who experienced a physical disability due to combat may find daily tasks more complex, such as driving to their appointments, removing snow, or getting around the house. This program adapts vehicles and other equipment to the needs of the disabled veteran, and offers gas cards.

Adaptive Equipment

Semper Fi & America’s Fund Specialized and Adaptive Equipment: Catastrophic injuries, especially those which are debilitating, can make it difficult for veterans to perform simple tasks. This program provides veterans with the specialized, adaptive equipment they need. Some of the equipment they have provided for other veterans include:

  • Visual enhancement devices for people with visual disabilities
  • Therapeutic mattresses for people with burns or excessive injuries
  • Specialized software programs for people who are unable to type
  • Custom-designed wheelchairs for people who are not able to ambulate

Comprehensive Support:

Gary Sinise Foundation H.O.P.E. Program: Wounded veterans and their family members may be unprepared for the full impact wrought by the veteran’s injury. This program supports veterans and their families by offering supportive services, from simple tasks such as picking up groceries to bill paying up to full temporary financial support.

Resources for Disabled Veterans’ Medical Care

Medical Care Resources:

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society Visiting Nurse Program: Visiting nurses can help disabled veterans by providing medical consultation and health checks between medical appointments. They can help veterans understand all their care options and ensure they are receiving the best care possible, answer any health questions, provide health education, and connect veterans with healthcare resources.

LCpl Parsons Welcome Home Fund for Vietnam Veterans: This fund through Semper Fi & America’s Fund specifically targets Vietnam veterans from all United States service branches. Any Vietnam vets may apply for assistance if they have a severe or debilitating injury or chronic illness caused by combat in Vietnam operations. Some qualifying injuries or illnesses include:

  • Being blind or legally blind
  • Being burned over 50% of the body
  • Paralyzation
  • Amputation
  • Severe traumatic brain injury
  • Life-threatening illness caused by Agent Orange exposure

Semper Fi & America’s Fund Visiting Nurse Program: Emotional support, aid in coping skills development, health evaluations, and assistance in self-care are all provided by traveling nurses in this program.

Mental Health Resources:

Hope for the Warriors Clinical Support Services: This sector of Hope for the Warriors provides clinical assessments to both veterans and their caregivers to identify and treat gaps in their mental health care. Through these services, disabled veterans can access temporary therapeutic interventions while masters-level social workers connect them with the best care for their needs that are closest to home.

Suicide Prevention:

IAVA’s Big 6 Combat Suicide Program: To help combat suicide, the IAVA works to raise awareness of the issue of suicide in veterans, as well as fights to expand the rights to both basic and advanced healthcare needs, including mental health care. For example, IAVA group leaders worked with legislators to enact and pass the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019. Among other things, this Act worked to expand or improve health care offered for transition assistance, mental health care, health care for women veterans, and telehealth veterans services.

Support for Burn Pit Injuries and Toxic Exposure Injuries:

IAVA’s Big 6: Another effort by the IAVA, this program sector aims to address injuries caused by burn pits and exposure to toxic chemicals veterans may have experienced during their service time in Iraq or Afghanistan. They work to raise awareness to the issue — with 3.5 million veterans and active-duty service members affected to date. They also aim to identify the impact of these injuries, diseases the burn injuries and toxic exposure may cause, and expand legislation to ensure veterans receive care and healthcare coverage for said injuries.

Support for Accessing Alternative Therapies:

IAVA’s Big 6: The IAVA’s members have stated that medical cannabis has proven effective for many veterans in addressing a number of different health issues, though it is not widely accepted as a medical treatment. This organization aims to remove the stigma associated with cannabis as a treatment, calls for updates to medical research, and takes action to improve healthcare for veterans that includes access to proven-effective alternative therapy methods. In addition to medical cannabis, they work to expand veterans’ access to the following:

  • Therapy dogs
  • Agricultural therapy
  • Equine therapy
  • MDMA-assisted psychotherapy

Support for Substance Abuse Treatment:

Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network: Through the Warriors Heart program, veterans can access inpatient treatment (the most effective form of care for severe substance use disorders) for substance abuse and chemical dependency. This includes treatment for co-occurring disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

IAVA’s Quick Reaction Force Quitting Smoking Support: Veterans smoke cigarettes at three times the rate of civilians, which is why the IAVA is dedicated to helping veterans on their path to quitting smoking through resources and support. If quitting is not the right option, the IAVA provides access to harm reduction programs that can help veterans explore less-harmful tobacco-related alternatives.

Medical Care for Traumatic Brain Injuries:

Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network: Veterans who are recovering from traumatic brain injuries can seek evaluation and treatment at the Marcus Institute for Brain Health through the University of Colorado.

Veteran Peer Support and Community Resources:

IAVA Peer Support Program: No one understands what other veterans are experiencing in day-to-day life quite like other veterans. Through this program, veterans can talk to peers who can relate to their current and past issues and/or traumatic experiences and provide a listening ear and support.

Financial Resources for Injured and Disabled Veterans

Fisher House: The Fisher House Foundation provides houses to the VA and military medical centers around the world for veterans and their families. These houses offer a temporary place to stay free of charge while the veteran is receiving treatment at the nearby medical center for an illness or injury.

Hope for the Warriors Critical Needs Program: This program helps veterans experiencing financial strain due to a combat injury or disability. The organization understands that unexpected injuries, and the way they can quickly progress, may lead to unexpected financial strain. Through the program, veterans and their families can receive support for financial counseling and long-term financial planning. They can also apply for aid and receive financial support, if approved.

IAVA Quick Reaction Force (QRF) Financial Assistance Program: While this IAVA program does not provide direct financial assistance, they refer veterans to the programs that will provide such support. Veterans who have worked with the QRF have received help with paying rent, utilities, car payments, and even grocery costs.

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society Financial Assistance Services: United States Navy and Marine Corps survivors can find financial assistance or personalized loans. If eligible, veterans can receive funds immediately. Funds are available for a number of needs, from helping with mortgage payments to everyday expenses. The program also provides financial counseling for veterans and service members.

Operation Second Chance, Financial Aid Program:  Injured veterans and their families can receive financial grants to help pay for expenses such as rent, mortgage, utilities, childcare, and more. Disabled veterans must provide their honorable discharge papers and must not have had less than six months of active duty status to receive aid.

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