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Self-Employment Services for Vets with Disabilities

July 27, 2010

Today’s disabled veteran, much like their predecessors from generations and wars past, are entering the self-employment arena in record numbers.  But they are also facing challenges and barriers that many of their comrades did not previously have.

Even with a common bond of military service, the disabled veteran population is extremely segmented – and some would say it’s also fragmented.  From the type of disability and its severity, to whether or not the disability or medical condition is related to military service (i.e. service-connected, service-disabled or non-service connected disabled), disabled veterans are involved in every industry and business sector throughout the nation.

The vast majority of veterans – those with non-service connected medical conditions – are left to find their own way with few opportunities in the self-employment arena, based on their military service, joining alongside those non-veterans with disabilities in business.  Even though there are more non-service connected disabled veterans in business than service-connected disabled veterans, it is still far from an easy road for either one to reach that self-employment dream.

The following are but a sampling of a few of the many barriers, obstacles and challenges (created by others) for disabled veterans to face in launching a business venture.  Those with disabilities who are not veterans will also be able to relate with many of the following:

Loss of Benefits 

For the service-connected disabled veteran, existing disability benefits received from medical retirement or Veterans Administration (VA) compensation (rated as a percentage, based on the severity of the medical condition) should not be affected by a self-employment or work activity. 

However, pending disability claims or future claims for an increase in disability rating may be compromised by a self-employment activity.  Additionally, special VA benefit programs/ratings, such as an “unemployability” rating or VA pension will be directly impacted by a business or work activity.

Social Security

If the disabled veteran is receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, a business activity will affect benefits.  However, Social Security does have a number of work-incentive and other programs which may be workable by an enterprising disabled veteran, service-connected or not.

VA Vocational Rehabilitation

Veterans Administration vocational rehabilitation services are available to service-connected disabled veterans having a severe disability rating, which is generally recognized as 40 percent or greater.  But historically, and with some exceptions, the VA’s vocational rehabilitation services remain at arm’s-length, being not too enthusiastic or supportive of self-employment as a work option for severely disabled veterans, even though they are charged by law to do so.

Note:  Disabled veterans, whether or not service-connected, should seek the guidance of a qualified VA or Social Security benefits counselor, or a counselor from a Congressionally-chartered military service organization, before planning a business.

State Vocational Rehabilitation

Many disabled veterans, both service-connected and non-service connected, have utilized their state’s vocational rehabilitation agency to counsel them in self-employment endeavors.  This is the same option offered to many individuals with disabilities who are not veterans.  In addition, much like the VA Vocational Rehabilitation Program, that specific state agency may or may not view self-employment as a viable work option.

Self-Employment Assistance

For those veterans having a disability that present little in apparent impairment, they may or may not face difficulty in competing in the marketplace; they tend to experience few in business obstacles, aside from those business issues one without a disability would also encounter. 

For this veteran population, there is an abundance of qualifying programs, organizations and services available—both military/veteran-related and not.  However for those disabled veterans who are truly and severely or catastrophically disabled, both service-disabled and non-service disabled, there are few in resources, programs or government agencies that can guide and assist these “non-traditional” entrepreneurs.

SBA, SCORE, SBDC, etc

These government funded agencies, organizations, institutions and programs are well schooled and experienced  in the traditional world of business, provided the disabled vet fits or qualifies within the “traditional” business norm (e.g. strong credit rating, work experience, equity, good physical and mental health, etc.).  But when a severely and catastrophically disabled veteran confronts them for services, they are unable to accommodate or satisfy the disabled veteran’s needs in the “non-disabled” world of business.  

Many of the counselors, instructors or coaches in these government and privately funded agencies, organizations, institutions and groups know and understand the traditional business model but have little, if any, training in disabilities or rehabilitation. They tend to lack the understanding or have little (first-hand) experience on the many and diverse challenges and unique needs faced in starting and running a business as a veteran with a disability, especially a severe disability.

They are only able to follow the traditional model of business as outlined by their agency, institution, organization or program, and are unable to factor in the many challenges, like those barriers previously mentioned, to assess the disabled vet.  In some instances, such guidance by these individuals has actually harmed the disabled veteran by providing information, recommendations or suggesting a course of action that was damaging to the vet’s disability benefits, health and financial well-being.

The Non-Traditional Entrepreneur in a Traditional Business World

Disabled veterans are definitely non-traditional entrepreneurs, with some arguably being the “most non-traditional” of any business person.   Depending on the type of disability, its severity and how well managed or controlled, the veteran may need to conduct their business planning and activities in a non-traditional manner.  

For some veterans with a disability, there comes a realization that business start-up and operations may be more costly than for a competitor without a disability.  As a result, the business may also have to take on a completely different slant in marketing, management and/or structure than a non-disabled competitor in the same market to reach success.

The non-traditional disabled veteran-owned business often needs to secure funding, conduct marketing and operate their venture in a non-traditional out-of-the-norm business fashion until that time when they’ve been able to achieve a competitive advantage, create a strong market share and reach financial credibility to fit into the traditional business mode and qualify equally with competitors for business services, offerings and opportunities.

Like their disabled veteran forefathers in business before them, today’s disabled and especially severely disabled veterans are achieving outstanding milestones in the business world.  Technological advancements, communications accessibility, longer life expectancies due to progressive healthcare, medical procedures and prosthetics are increasing the independence and competitive performance of more with severe disabilities than ever before. 

Today, disabled veterans who are blind, have a high-level spinal cord injury, have debilitating diseases, brain injury, severe burns, or multiple amputations, as well as those having mental or psychological disorders, and those with a combination of disabilities are meeting the challenges of starting and running businesses, employing others and continuing to contribute to their community and America.

After all, for many disabled and severely disabled veterans, the battles in self-employment are but one of many battles they have faced, and continue to face daily in living with their medical condition.  Self-employment has proven to be a rehabilitative benefit for disabled veterans, as well as for non-veterans with disabilities. 

Self-employment has helped many disabled veterans in their transition back into society; it’s the pride of contributing to the community rather than taking from it.  It’s also moving forward in life, even though there are new challenges ahead.  Business ownership is the American dream that many (including severely and catastrophically) disabled veterans are now discovering is still a reality, after they’ve given so much already for the right to the dream. 

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