Fear Itself an Unnecessary Barrier to Hiring Vets With Disabilities

FDR famously rallied America in very tough times by stating that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Eighty years later, fear itself is getting in the way of some employers hiring veterans with disabilities; fears that are perhaps understandable but upon closer examination are unfounded.

As I write this blog, I am traveling across our nation to raise awareness of the issues facing paralyzed veterans and their families. From my hometown of Woodward, OK, to Washington, D.C., one of the biggest challenges facing all veterans at the minute is finding a competitive job at a good company -- in this fragile economy. While the unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, the same figure for veterans with severe disabilities is 85 percent, 10 times higher.

The question that I get asked more than any other from the media is "Why?" My answer is "fear." Perhaps they think that it's going to be "expensive" to adapt their places of employment for people like me who use wheelchairs. Maybe they think we might not be able to do a job "as well" as able-bodied employees. And of course, some employers think that we don't have what it takes to be a valuable addition to their work force. These may be the fears, but they are unjustified.

First, the "expense" of adapting workplaces for people with disabilities. Imagine this scenario: you have an office space with two cubicles and four chairs. To adapt it for me, it could be as simple as moving two of the chairs out of the space. Cost to employers: zero. To be sure, there may be more extensive adaptations, but these are usually low cost and there may even be help available from the government to make the adaptations. For example, some vets get resources from VA to adapt their workplaces. Indeed, eligible veterans get adaptive equipment and therapies to enhance function.

Second, the "not as good as able-bodied employees." We are veterans of the best military force in the world. We possess world-class skills. We are great team players. We are loyal. We are decisive, committed, and enthusiastic.

Finally, our value as employees: We are tenacious. We have been tested and we have honed our skills in the face of adversity. We have the "right stuff" to be great assets to any employer. In fact, at a time when our economy is struggling to recover, we can offer great employers an enormous competitive edge -- great employees.

To help tackle veterans' unemployment rates and the fears that employers may have, Paralyzed Veterans of America created Operation PAVE (www.operationpave.org), which stands for Paving Access for Veterans Employment. How does Operation PAVE work? We connect directly with injured veterans at VA spinal cord injury centers. We engage employers with vacancies. We help vets take that next step to competitive careers that offer opportunities not just to work but also to excel. And we eliminate employer fears by educating them about the advantages of hiring veterans and how easy it is to adapt workplaces for workers with disabilities.

Fear itself can also be fear of the unknown. So I would respectfully encourage all employers -- who currently don't have an aggressive strategy to hire veterans with disabilities -- to take a minute out of their busy schedules and do three important things:

  1. Think about all of the professional and personal qualities that veterans with disabilities offer.

  • Reach-out to potential veteran employees and their families in your neighborhood.
  • Make hiring more veterans part of your professional mission.
  • It's a strategy that's good for business and great for America.