Career Advances for Disabled Veterans

 Paralyzed Veterans of America knows that having a career after a catastrophic injury is good psychological rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the job front remains tough for veterans with catastrophic disabilities.

“With 85 percent unemployment, there’s a lot that needs to be done,” said Homer S. Townsend Jr. “Paralyzed Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Program is one of the best ways for us to reach out and help veterans.”

Paralyzed Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Program helps paralyzed veterans and their families develop the skills they need to compete in the job market—while matching them with businesses with vacancies. Begun in 2007, it is an innovative public-private partnership with business, the federal government and philanthropy.

Townsend knows firsthand the limited employment options a person with severe disabilities can face. When he became spinal cord injured, job pickings seemed slim.

“I think the jobs for me at the time were in New York City fixing watches,” he said. “I decided to go look for myself, and finally opened my own business.”

Like many of the organization’s members, Townsend, now the executive director of Paralyzed Veterans, has spent years advocating strongly for the right and opportunity of people with disabilities to seek and have satisfying employment. He has served on the President’s Committee on Employment of Persons with Disabilities and the Arizona Governor’s Committee on Employment of Persons with Disabilities.

Sherman Gillums Jr., associate director of Veterans Benefits, said Paralyzed Veterans is stressing to vocational counselors how important it is that expectations be set high when helping people with disabilities look for and find satisfying careers. 

“I’d say it begins with changing the expectations of a person with catastrophic disabilities during the rehabilitation stages,” he said. “Rehabilitation now takes you from the point of the accident to basic function. It doesn’t include education and work, and it needs to include that.”

Louis Irvin, vocational rehabilitation consultant, has seen this mindset in many of the veterans with whom he works. “We’ve come across veterans who don’t have an expectation of themselves that they can provide employers with valuable services,” he said. “We’re trying to change that expectation. Our program is individually focused to help individuals achieve whatever they want to their maximum ability—whatever they want.”

Fortunately, the jobs picture is better for veterans with catastrophic disabilities today than in Townsend’s era.

“Our list of corporate partners is pretty extensive,” Irvin said. “Our counselors meet with employers every day. Every employer that has a vacancy is interested in hiring a good employee. They know veterans are good employees.”

Townsend noted that the barriers between people with disabilities and workplaces aren’t physical or insurmountable. They are a matter of what people think. He offered a simple solution for improving employment for veterans with catastrophic disabilities:

“You just have to change people’s minds,” he said.

Patrick McCallister is a reporter in Florida and frequent contributor to PN Magazine.


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