Earlier this year, Military Veterans in Journalism and the Ford Foundation launched its Disability Inclusion Program to advocate for better, more nuanced reporting around disabled military veterans. Eleven veterans were chosen to serve as speakers. MVJ organized a training series with top journalists and experts in the disabled veterans and broader disability spaces to discuss these critical issues and teach best practices.
In May, Dan Clare, the chief communications and outreach officer for DAV (Disabled American Veterans), held two training sessions with the Speakers Bureau veterans. Clare focused on the issues disabled veterans face today and how journalists should approach these concerns.
Clare began with a question: what is a disabled veteran? To him and to DAV, a disabled veteran is “an individual who, while serving in the armed forces, experiences a lasting change in their physical or mental health that impedes their ability to work or function in society.”
Disabled veterans are part of the broader world of disabilities and should be treated as such. One thing that makes service-connected disabled veterans unique, however, is that their disabilities were incurred while they were serving to defend the nation. They are not the only disabled people who have advocated for change, but the improvements in VA medical care and research disabled veterans have advocated for help the movement to make America more inclusive and accessible to all disabled people.
While the military is rigorous in its physical health standards for enlistment, many veterans leave the service forever changed in some way, Clare said. The disability expert states it’s the public’s obligation to ensure veterans receive the care they need to function in society.
According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 43% of post-9/11 veterans have a chance of having a service-related disability, with 39% of those having a disability rating of 70% or higher. The VA’s budget has risen accordingly over the years. In 2001, the VA received $45 billion in funding, which will increase to $300 billion by 2023. Overall, Clare said there’s an increased awareness of the benefits available to veterans and less reluctance to ask for help.
Yet even with that increased awareness, disabled veterans still struggle to receive the care they’re entitled to, and certain groups face more difficulty than others.
Women veterans comprise the fastest-growing segment of the population but some don’t identify themselves as veterans to others. Of the two million women veterans in the VA system, only 500,000 are currently in treatment, even though 60% of those in the system have a disability rating of 50% or higher. According to Clare, several factors cause this disparity — the accessibility of childcare and housing, harassment at VA care facilities, and disproportionate denial of claims related to military sexual trauma all serve as barriers to care for women veterans.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and racial minority veterans haven’t fared much better over the years. LGBT+ veterans are far more likely to experience depression, and their suicide rates are higher than other veteran groups, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. This group of people often don’t disclose their gender or sexual identity due to a history of mistreatment, bias, and outright denial of care, according to Clare.
Among veterans in racial and ethnic minority groups, service disabled Black vets use the VA care system at the highest rate, with only Hispanic vets coming close behind. Per the VA’s Office of Health Equity, the percentage of minority veterans in the VA system will continue to increase in the future. “The VA needs to diversify its staff,” Clare stated. “It needs to better represent the community it serves.”
Among the more widely-known issues facing veterans today is exposure to environmental toxins in service. Around 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits in the Middle East, and more have been exposed to contaminated water on installations stateside. Yet it takes the VA a very long time to recognize toxin cases related to combat and begin treating them, and it’s often a fight to get there, Clare said. The result is healthy veterans getting sick and dying without access to the care they’ve earned. Clare noted that these veterans die prematurely and without access to benefits, and their families are brushed aside after their deaths. Justice, both for veterans exposed to these toxins and their spouses and families, he said, must be sped up.While reporting on disabled veterans’ issues has evolved, and solid coverage is often a service to the community, Clare believes there are some areas in which it hasn’t necessarily improved. Tropes and “inspiration porn” often seen in coverage of disabled veterans causes direct harm – irresponsible representation of suicide, for instance, has been proven to directly impact the decisions of veterans with suicidal thoughts or tendencies. The consequences can be disastrous on the community, as they influence shifts in public perception.
“These stories need to be told, and they need to be told in a productive and effective manner,” Clare said. “We need reporters to ask, ‘What is the promise that [the public has] made veterans, and how [is the public] going to make them whole?’”
Clare advised the Speakers Bureau veterans against making broad, sweeping statements or assumptions about veterans in news reporting. Stories containing these statements are often publicity stunts or partisan in nature and don’t reflect the whole disabled veteran community, he explained. Broad assumptions about disabled veterans harm those looking for work, as the misperceptions created cause employers to balk at veterans with disabilities.
Instead, reporters should focus on straightforward, factual portrayals of veterans and provide readers with resources to maximize positive impact. Reminding reporters that they’re not alone, Clare said, is important. There are plenty of organizations like DAV available to reach out to for resources and fact-checking, and they can connect reporters with disabled veteran sources.
He also shared some tips for the Speakers Bureau members to take to newsrooms:
- When journalists write headlines, they should avoid exaggerating.
- Journalists need to look at the issue, find the most credible source, and take the time to build a good story.
- Journalists should be objective in their analysis of VA. The department should remain accountable to the veterans and families it serves and the taxpayers who fund it. However, subjective or out-of-context reporting that erodes public faith in the VA could harm its ability to support those who served.
- Reporters should understand that veterans are never required to disclose their disability. If they choose to, the reporter has a duty to report accurately, and does not need to include that information if it’s irrelevant to the story.
Maintaining truth and clarity in reporting on disabled veterans’ issues is what Dan Clare believes should be central in future coverage. “In order for us to have the freedom of the press, citizens have to be willing to make sacrifices for the nation,” he said, “and it’s important to understand the public’s obligation to veterans beyond patriotism.”