Transitioning from military to civilian life can be disorienting, confusing, and leave you not sure of where to even start with navigating a new, unfamiliar world. The abrupt and dramatic change from one lifestyle to another is difficult enough. Now imagine doing it without eyesight, or with one arm, or with a traumatic brain injury that makes it difficult to concentrate. Add onto that another challenge — not having a supportive employer.
Pew Research says that about half (48 percent) of post-9/11 veterans believe that adjusting to civilian life after military service was difficult. Some veterans have never needed to search for a job or create a resume. They often struggle to translate their military skills and responsibilities into transferable skills for civilian work.
I can relate to the veterans who feel frustrated and powerless after leaving the service. As a third-generation sailor, the six years I spent in the United States Navy were some of the proudest of my life. After my time was up, I was lucky enough to work as a welder, which was something I loved doing and allowed me to transition to civilian life pretty easily. But eventually, optic neuropathy caused my eyesight to deteriorate. Over the course of three days, I lost vision in one eye and within a few short years I was legally blind. It was an incredibly difficult experience — wanting to work but not being able to do so in the same way as before. Fortunately, I found IFB Solutions, a nonprofit organization in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to lean on for support. IFB Solutions is one of the many organizations associated with National Industries for the Blind that help people who are blind, including veterans, with employment, training, and other professional services.
As a country we like to talk about how much we value our veterans and honor our wounded warriors. This Veterans Day, social media may be flooded with companies expressing gratitude for those who have served our country. But businesses can — and should — go a step further and act on their appreciation year-round.
Companies should practice what they preach and ease servicemembers’ transition to civilian life by becoming good places to work for veterans, especially those like me who are blind or disabled. Companies can start by creating an inclusive workplace, for veterans and more broadly for people who are blind or disabled.
Many leaders might not know where to start, but luckily a lot of the resources and solutions already exist for companies that are willing to implement them. For example, NSITE, NIB’s talent management enterprise, offers support and guidance for companies who want to hire people who are blind or visually impaired, and connects veterans who qualify with a wide range of career options that suit their interests, goals, and capabilities.
Businesses can also help overcome workplace roadblocks by following three steps:
- Diversify your hiring practices. By becoming more diverse with their hires, companies not only invite new perspectives that help them become more flexible, dynamic, and innovative, but also provide more employment opportunities for veterans and people with disabilities.
- Change your perspective. Instead of thinking about what might happen if a new hire doesn’t work out, think about what could happen if it does work out: improved inclusion, reduced turnover, and a better understanding of veterans and the disability community.
- Overcome the myth of complexity. Companies might think hiring someone who is blind is logistically challenging, but it’s not as complicated as you might think. Thanks to years of experience, people with disabilities have already developed solutions to help onboard and integrate themselves into a new role. What’s more, accessible technology is not as expensive to implement as it seems. For example, smartphones — which many people already own — have built in accessible capabilities that employees who are blind can use to navigate the workplace.
As a military veteran, I pride myself on adaptability, as I know many others do. That’s why we have some of the most diverse backgrounds in the professional world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use the help to ease a sometimes difficult transition. By seeking out veterans as potential employees and guiding them through an unfamiliar world, companies can show that they care for people like me.
Scott Smith is a proud U.S. Navy veteran who makes eyeglasses as an optical technician in IFB Solutions’ Twenty200 Optical Lab.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.