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New Initiatives for Disabled Vets

February 3, 2009

In reaching out to veterans, a Rochester university is acting on its unique strengths.

“We had seen media reports about troops serving in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan being exposed to loud noises and hearing loss.... We continue to see reports that hearing loss is the highest disability reported by those serving in those regions,” said T. Alan Hurwitz, president of National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of eight colleges of Rochester Institute of Technology (one such media report is available here). “We deal with hearing loss every day, so it’s a topic that certainly piqued our interest. “

RIT/NTID just launched the Military Veterans with Hearing Loss Project. “We have not reached out to this group traditionally and the group is relatively new in terms of having just served in the conflict and being back in the country,” said Gerry Buckley, assistant vice president at NTID. “Our plan is to start with a program for 10 students in the fall and to grow that program to 50 students over five years.”

“We have this wide range of services available that just can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the country…. Imagine yourself if you became deaf overnight.… If I asked you to go to a class tomorrow and listen to the lecture, you certainly wouldn’t be able to learn sign language in one year. But you could read captioning, and that’s one of the support services. We have 55 full-time captionists on our staff who attend classes with students and provide captioning support.

“Our goal is to recruit 10 vets who are ready to begin their bachelor’s degree or master’s at RIT and we provide the full access of services to them: captioning, note taking, and we'll also offer them the audiological and speech services that they might need,” Buckley said.

“Our strength, very, very clearly, is that this adult student, this veteran student who's coming into the educational environment, will not be the first for us, will not be the only one needing these services,” said Gene Clark, director of veteran enrollment services at RIT. “We have a long history of having NTID students assimilate into RIT programs, so this is a very normal activity for us.”

Currently, RIT reports enrolling about 300 students who are receiving veterans’ benefits. A new GI Bill, which goes into effect in August, will dramatically expand educational benefits for veterans, covering tuition up to the rate at the most expensive public institution in the state, in addition to providing a housing and book stipend. RIT, a private university, plans to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, through which it will enter into a matching agreement with the federal government to waive tuition costs over and above the amount already covered. In other words, veterans will likely be able to attend RIT at much lower cost than they currently can, and audiological and speech services are available free to students on campus.

Other initiatives have focused on disabled veterans more generally, including the Operation Education scholarships at the University of Idaho. On Thursday, Michigan State University announced a new initiative for veterans with disabilities, pledging to cover all education-related costs for Michigan veterans with documented disability status starting this fall.

“When we bill the cost of education for a student who’s considering attending school, we include in it all the kinds of things that they’re likely to encounter: tuition and fees, room and board, books, medical expenses, personal expenses, and miscellaneous,” said Rick Shipman, the director of the Office of Financial Aid at Michigan State. “Not all students qualify for 100 percent GI Bill, so they don’t have all those things covered; even when they do have 100 percent, they don’t always have all those things covered.”

Michigan State currently has 19 disabled veterans enrolled, although Shipman said he believes that underestimates the actual total. That's because veterans who aren't receiving educational benefits wouldn’t necessarily disclose their ex-military status, and, without a reason to, some veterans might not report their disabilities. "But we do have an array of support services available to students here. So our belief is we can provide not just additional money but we can assist students in a whole range of ways," Shipman said.

Michigan State is estimating the program will initially cost $150,000. The impetus came from a member of the university’s elected Board of Trustees who asked, Shipman said, "Is there anything we can do for veterans that we’re not currently doing, especially for disabled veterans?”

 

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