A Personal Reflection on Wounded Warriors, the Disabled Community and Money

May 10, 2013

by Jacob Lesner-Buxton

In the spring of 2010, a problem was developing in colleges and universities across California. Without warning, it seemed students with disabilities were being denied accommodations that helped them succeed in school. Under a statute that had been in place for over 35 years, schools were mandated to provide disabled students with services like assistance with taking notes in lectures, specialized computer software, assistance with taking exams, and related accommodations. Now these services were being cut.

Disabled activists who were alarmed at these cuts – myself included - were being told that the service denials had to do with budget cuts. But that reason was unacceptable. The law clearly stated that you must offer accommodations to those with need regardless of how much money is in an institution’s bank account. A campaign was launched where advocates helped students file complaints with the Department of Justice, the agency that oversaw the law and had the power to order schools to reinstate students’ recommendations.

While I was working on the campaign, I happened to be at a conference where one of the attorneys from the agency who works on holding colleges accountable to disabled students was speaking.  At this conference were representatives from higher education institutions from around the state. Most of the attendees ran services for disabled students.  I was excited when I found out a lawyer from the Department of Justice would lead a training session on the responsibilities colleges have in serving disabled students. Maybe he would help to remind colleges that cutting accommodations was illegal.  

Instead of focusing on the rights of all disabled students, however, the attorney focused more than 50% of his remarks solely in the issue of helping people the man referred to as “wounded warriors.” He spoke with emotion, even crying as he said the disabled community needs to a better job of serving this population. 

This set the tone for the conference overall.  There were sessions on problems wounded warriors face, a reception at a center for wounded warriors on a local campus, and even an acting troupe performing a play on the lives of wounded warriors after they return home. People at the conference were also encouraged to tell the audience what their school had done and would do for wounded warriors.

For non-veterans with disabilities, attendees were told to enforce strict guidelines for determining who could receive accommodations

This was in sharp contrast to how those present were advised to deal with people with disabilities who had not been in the military. For non-veterans with disabilities, attendees were told to enforce strict guidelines for determining who could receive accommodations. A director at one college said that students should “make sure they have recent documentation for their disability from a credible doctor.” But the law says that schools should give the benefit of the doubt and sometimes use their personal judgment when a student requests accommodations.  Another program also reported conduct that violated the law by stating they “encourage students to get tested for a learning disability by someone in the community because we have a six week waiting list for testing.” 

Likewise a program leader stated “at our college, our students can’t receive accommodations if they take night and weekend classes.” But the law states that accommodations must be made for every class on your campus, no matter the time, and that testing for learning disabilities needs to be provided without cost by the school, and take place no later than three weeks after it’s requested. 

IF THE GOVERNMENT IS SO BROKE…

I'm all for assisting wounded warriors.  But I was taken aback at the conference's implicit and sometimes explicit message: that programs for disabled veterans should be expanded but that no additional government funding would be provided to do so; rather, schools and non-profits would have to carry an additional load – and the method of choice for doing that would be to cut back on legally mandated programs for other students with disabilities.

Not one person brought this disconnect up at the conference.  Normally, a speaker who talks about the importance of a new service would be asked by someone in the audience, “That’s a great idea - now where is the money to implement it?” However, there was no pushback at the conference when it came to the topic of “wounded warriors.” It seemed to me that there was a particular political tone that lay at the bottom of this: I suspect people were afraid that if they voiced concerns about creating new programs, or about whether this was a fair approach to all disabled people, they would labeled as anti-military, or even unpatriotic.

I couldn’t help but wonder how a so called “wounded warrior” would feel if they saw colleges asked to divert funds from helping other disabled students in order to provide assistance to them. However, I never found out because no one who spoke at the conference stated they were a veteran. As a social worker, I have trained to always start with and include the community, when planning on implementing a new program or services. However at the conference, people spoke for veterans and told us things like all people who come back from Iraq are depressed and need special services to be re-acclimated to civilian life. As someone who has friends who are veterans who have been in Iraq, I can tell you that this is only one side of the story.

If some of my friends were at the conference, they would have challenged everyone present, the disability community and all those who provide services to disabled people to do more to stop the wars. Throughout the conference all of these programs were talked about as if they needed to exist. No one brought up the fact that we could save money if the disability community along with other communities was able to force an end to casualty-causing wars.

Veteran groups need to ally with people with disabilities to tell the government to stop asking non-profits and colleges to sacrifice the needs of their clientele

While the disability community could develop an anti-militarism position and take part more actively in antiwar protests, a lot of our service providers and non-profits that assist the disabled face structural obstacles to doing so. Too many of these institutions run on funding from government, which dictates how that money should be spent. Last year a major disability organization received a warning from the State of California to stop using government money to lobby around issues like health care and transportation. If the government got mad at nonprofits for trying to get more buses in California, just imagine the hubbub that will happen if a mainstream disability rights agency organized a contingent at an anti-war march. All their government funding would surely be withdrawn.

Veteran groups need to ally with people with disabilities to tell the government to stop asking non-profits and colleges to sacrifice the needs of their clientele in order to make space in their budgets for veterans’ services. This country and all of its subcontractors who spent so many billions in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now spending a fortune on drones have a lot of nerve asking nonprofits to bear the cost of supporting veterans who became disabled in the course of their military service.  If the government is too broke to support veterans, maybe the U.S.  should avoid going to war in the first place.

Jacob Lesner-Buxton is a disability justice activist from Oakland , California . He helps produces a radio show called Pushing Limits on KPFA radio and in his spare time is a modern dancer.  You can get in contact with him and order his e-book 28 going on 17 at [email protected]

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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