Counselors Campus to Careers Toolkit

For career counselors who guide student veterans
A veteran with a prosthetic arm prepares her career plan

Veterans with Disabilities

Transitioning to employment with a disability

They served. Are you ready to serve them?

In 2020, about one-quarter of all veterans reported having a service-connected disability. Nearly one-half (41%) of Gulf War Era (GWE) veterans have a service-connected disability. Of these GWE veterans, 54% had a severe disability.[1] (A severe disability is defined as a DVA rating of at least 60% disabled.) Many of these veterans are now students who will seek college career counseling as they transition to employment. As a career counselor, you play a pivotal role as they make this transition.

Why the higher rates of disability among Gulf War Era veterans?

There are several reasons why Gulf War Era veterans have a higher rate of disability:

  • Despite advances in medicine and protective equipment, serving in the Gulf Wars has been dangerous and stressful. Attacks are difficult to anticipate, often come with no warning, and can be deadly.
  • With advances in onsite medical care, GWE veterans are more likely than other veterans to survive service-related injuries. But they often survive with disabilities.
  • Conditions like post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) were not fully understood or recognized prior to the GWE.

Different meanings of disability

Judge’s gavel beside a book about the Americans with Disabilities ActThough we often think of disability as a medical condition, there are many different definitions and views of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives us a legal definition of disability that goes beyond the medical definition. Applying a more functional definition of disability, the ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.[2]

Other definitions of disability are related to programs and services, such as veterans’ disability compensation. No wonder people are confused!

The social meaning of disability

For many veterans with disabilities, the medical, legal, and service definition of disability is not what they lose sleep over. Rather, it’s the social meaning of disability—the automatic, unquestioned, and, too often, negative assumptions others make about disability. Despite the recent rise of disability awareness, these misperceptions are still rampant. In fact, many people with disabilities say their main concern isn’t so much their disability, but how others might see their disability. Specifically, what will employers think of their disability?

Being new to disability

A veteran navigates a workplace cafeteria line in a wheelchairMany student veterans are dealing with newly acquired disabilities. In addition to adjusting to civilian life on campus, they face the stress of navigating a complex bureaucracy to get compensation and treatment. And, they are adjusting to a new identity—a person with a disability.

During the earlier stages of this adjustment, they might see their own disability through the lens of negative stereotypes and misperceptions that too often characterize society’s view of disability—a view that might be rooted in false perceptions of limitation and powerlessness. In other words, they might be internalizing stigma when viewing their own disability. They might not yet fully grasp the range of accommodations, treatments, assistive devices, and support networks available to them. And they might assume too quickly that certain career options are not open to them because of their disability.

Veterans, disability, and employment

How does having a disability affect veterans’ work lives?

In 2020,[3] the unemployment rate for all veterans was 6.5%, as compared to 6.2% for veterans with any service-connected (SC) disability and 9.6% for those with a more severe SC disability (rated as 60% or more disabled). For GWE veterans, the unemployment rate for veterans without an SC disability was 7.2%, not statistically different than those with an SC disability. Like other veterans, GWE veterans with a severe disability (rated as 60% or more disabled) had an unemployment rate of 9.6%. Veterans with an SC disability are more likely than others to work in the public sector, with 31% of employed GWE veterans with disabilities working in the public sector, as compared with 19% of veterans without a disability and 14% of nonveterans.

(Note: These statistics were taken in 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak led to higher levels of unemployment in both the veteran and civilian population. Further, certain sectors, such as hospitality and education, had higher levels of unemployment due to COVID-19. The analysis of how these trends impacted employment rates for veterans with disabilities is not available at the time of this writing.)

Veterans with disabilities striving to work

Though veterans with service-connected disabilities do get some compensation for their SC injuries, most veterans with disabilities need to work and want to work. Research on veterans (and others) with disabilities shows that most are actively striving to work.[4] But they face barriers to finding and sustaining employment. And one of the most pervasive barriers they face is employment discrimination.

About disability discrimination on the job

A veteran using a forearm crutch shakes hands during a job interview. The image focuses on the crutch, to draw attention to the idea that the recruiter might be focusing on the disability rather than on the veteran’s skills.Research tells us that workers with disabilities perform on average as well as those without disabilities on the job.[5] Yet, some employers have misperceptions about workers with disabilities that affect their decisions about hiring, accommodating, and retaining people with disabilities.[6]

Veterans with disabilities do fear employment discrimination.[7] This fear is understandable. But it might be based on misperceptions. Veterans with newly acquired disabilities might not yet know that they don’t have to tell an employer about their disability either during hiring or while employed. And they might not yet fully understand their rights around job accommodations.

What to do

As a career counselor, be ready to do three things:

  • Be prepared to explain the legal rights of job seekers and workers with disabilities (see Tool 4), focusing on disability disclosure and accommodation rights.
  • Be ready to gently but firmly challenge a veteran’s own internalized stigma (false negative assumptions) about their disability.
  • Reach out to employers to make the business case for hiring veterans (and others) with disabilities. Challenge employers’ misperceptions and build bridges with employers who have disability-positive workplaces (see Tool 7).

Focus on strengths, manage disability

Throughout history, people with disabilities have been funneled into jobs with low pay, few benefits, and no growth opportunities. Today, with better awareness, rights, supports, technology, and accommodations, people with disabilities are in all careers and all levels of the workplace. A veteran’s strengths and aspirations should drive their career path decision, not their disability. When counseling veterans with disabilities, adopt this mantra: Focus on strengths, manage disability. First, focus on a veteran’s career path decision based on the individual’s talents and preferences. Then, after they make a career path decision, explore issues such as disability disclosure and what job accommodations they might need.

The Veteran’s Career Planning Workbook

Use the Veteran’s Career Planning Workbook to enable powerful conversations with student veterans with disabilities. This workbook has been designed around the mantra: Focus on strengths, manage disability. Ideally, the workbook will be filled out together with the veteran student during a career counseling session. Or, the student veteran can work on it first and discuss it during the meeting.


[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Employment situation of veterans — 2020 [Press Release] (PDF).

[2] ADA National Network. (2020). What is the definition of disability under the ADA?

[3] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Employment situation of veterans — 2020 [Press Release] (PDF).

[4] Vidya Sundar, V., O’Neill, J., Houtenvillec, A., Phillips, K., Keirns, T., Smith, A., & Katz, E. (2018). Striving to Work and overcoming barriers: Employment strategies and success of people with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 48(1), 93–109.

[5] DePaul University and Illinois Dept of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. (2008). Exploring the bottom line: A study of the costs and benefits of workers with disabilities (PDF).

[6] Kulkarni, M., & Lengnick-Hall, M.L. (2014). Obstacles to success in the workplace for people with disabilities: A review and research agenda. Human Resource Development Review, 13, 158–180; Stone, C., & Stone, D.L. (2015). Factors affecting hiring decisions about veterans. Human Resource Management Review, 25(1), 68–79.

[7] Rudstam, H., Streeter-Wilson, J., & Gower, W. (2012). Veterans with Disabilities in the Workplace. CDO Workforce NY Conference Presentation.