Dan Standage Helps Disabled Veterans Earn College Degrees Through Student Veterans of America
by Mary D’Apice, COMS, and VisionAware Peer Advisor
Standage Lost His Vision While Serving in Okinawa
Dan Standage, Director of Disability in Education for the Student Veterans of America (SVA), did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps as a mechanic and so he chose the Marines. “I saw that being in the military was my way out of town and into a better life.” Standage enlisted just a couple days after turning 17 on Veteran’s Day. He never considered college. “People in my family did not expect to go to college or even do well in high school.” So, He shipped out to Okinawa ready to see the world but his service was curtailed. He had an extremely rare reaction to the Japanese encephalitis vaccine he received on arrival. For a long time, his seizures and headaches went undiagnosed. By the time doctors discovered that brain swelling had damaged his optic nerve, Standage’s left eye was permanently blind and only 25% of the vision in his right eye remained.
Out of the service, he met a few wounded warriors who accepted their disability payments and sat home on the couch. Other well-meaning friends would assure him, “The military owes you. You don’t have to work.” Standage resisted the temptation to withdraw from society, understanding that isolation and apathy would impact his mental health and well-being. “To me, there’s no challenge and no reward for lying in bed all day. You have my permission to mourn, but you have to have a plan and some goals in place when you wake up on the day you’ve accepted the loss.”
His plan included Blind Rehabilitation training in Tucson, Arizona at the VA where he discovered he had a knack for assistive technology. Encouraged to pursue a career as a Vision Rehabilitation Specialist, he eventually earned a BA and Master’s Degree in Blind Rehabilitation from the University of Arizona.
College and Founder of a New SVA Chapter
Many first-generation college students struggle with self-doubt and often lack role-models to help them navigate the college experience. Standage was determined to graduate and introduce his three children to a new family tradition, but wished his college experience weren’t so solitary. Standage felt isolated on campus and his inability to drive left him stranded in the library for long stretches at a time. A chance encounter led to an invitation to travel with the university’s president to an event where he met representatives of Student Veterans of America. Standage was inspired. “I wrote the first 35 dollar check out of my own account to get that chapter started so that other students would feel connected and engaged in a safe environment.” Under his leadership, the members had opportunities to connect with the wider community through fun service projects such as cleaning trail heads in the area. Most importantly, the veterans were there to support each other, whether a vet was struggling with grades, financial challenges, or a difficult family situation. Standage believes that without the SVA community, many veterans would have given up.
Student Veterans of America
The GI Bill has made it possible for all veterans who have served for 4 years to obtain a free college education. From a distance, the path to graduation may seem clear but obstacles remain. Many students are older and have families. Many are first generation college students who are intimidated by the application process. Chapters of Student Veterans of America located at colleges nationwide have become the “boots on the ground,” helping veterans transition to campus life and succeed academically. These peer-to-peer networks are critical lifelines for veterans who draw strength from being part of a team.
The challenge for student veterans with both visible and invisible wounds is even more significant. Standage describes how disability in the military is stigmatizing. Since people with health issues are screened out of the military, 100% of student veterans with a disability have acquired it in service or afterwards. Says Standage, “For the most part, all the vets we serve are brand new to the realm of disability.” Part of his job at SVA is to help his colleagues and other veterans become comfortable with the disabilities in their midst. Standage, a former marine with a visual impairment, reassures others with his own confidence. “Being disabled does not mean you are broken, it just means that you must do things differently.”
SVA Eases Transitions From College to Workforce
As the guardians of the GI Bill, SVA focuses on the entire lifecycle of each student, from choosing a college to applying for a job. Standage points out that most veterans have never had to prepare a resume or interview for a position. “In the military, your life is dictated and everything paid for. You don’t always know how to go about earning a living.” To ease the transition, SVA helps students find internships at companies that can provide job training as well as mentoring. Employees are looking for talented people with specific skills and the veterans are looking for a job that fits their career goals but they can’t always connect. Standage smiles, “It’s like two blind people walking around a big room trying to find each other. I bring them together.”
In his role as Director of Disability in Education, Standage helps employers understand the types of accommodations that can help a person with a disability perform at his or her best. The Americans with Disabilities Act has drawn attention to workplace discrimination and has forced businesses to address accessibility. However, Standage is concerned that legislation often allows employers to fulfill the lowest standard possible. “It’s better to educate not legislate people.” Standage believes better results occur if people are compelled to do the right thing because they understand the reasoning. “We want employers to elevate the standard.”
Standage is naturally a strong advocate for visually impaired employees but his job requires him to take into all disabilities into account. He demonstrates his awareness of the wide-range of accommodations when he oversees accessibility issues at SVA’s own annual conference. In addition to providing electronic versions of PowerPoint presentations, for example, he looks to make the experience better for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For those who may feel distressed in a large crowd, accommodations can be as simple as allowing the person to sit in the back of the room near a door.
Recruiting Student Volunteers
He is juggling many projects at SVA, but one major endeavor is collecting contact information for Disability Resource Centers located at all 7700 colleges that accept the GI Bill. Disability Resource Centers reduce barriers by providing advocacy, accommodations and supportive services to anyone with a disability. Unfortunately, not all students who need adaptive technology, test taking accommodations, sign language interpreters or braille even know that services exist on campus because they don’t advertise. Standage has put a call out to volunteers to work from home on their computers and help him build a database. “It’s a position you can do in your pajamas,” he promises. He invites volunteers to contact him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The power of the Student Veterans of America is that it taps into the volunteer spirit that all vets have and the desire to pull the next person up through the process of achieving higher education. “I appreciate what SVA did for me and I want incoming student veterans to appreciate what it does, too. I work for the place that I’m a product of, which is kind of special.”