4 things to know before entering the civilian workforce after disability retirement

Disability isn’t an unemployment sentence

Not enough veterans are talking honestly about the challenges that come with having your military career cut short by unexpected disability – how hard it is to claim a new identity, adapt to a new way of day-to-day living, and enter the civilian workforce, perhaps for the first time. 

After being medically retired from the military in 2016 after a debilitating stroke, I struggled to find employment and a sense of purpose as a civilian on top of having a disability to reckon with. What I thought would be a seamless transition from soldier to contributing member of society turned out to be a battle for which I wasn’t adequately prepared.

To help you out, I’ve compiled the top four pieces of advice I wish I’d known before I started my transition into the civilian world. Though it’s not an easy journey, building a new life for yourself after the military can be incredibly rewarding if you focus on your goals. 

Job rejections are part of the process

We leave the military with a unique set of skills and experiences, and it can be easy to think that employers will throw job offers our way. But job search components – answering application questions, creating resumes and cover letters, and interviewing – can seem daunting at first. These are skills that you will get better at with time. It takes practice to dial in your best professional self and to really showcase what you bring to the table. 

What I’ve come to hear constantly from people in the workforce without a military background is this: service members consistently downplay their knowledge, skills, and abilities in resumes and in interviews. Often, it takes some professional assistance to help you (and potential employers) see that what you’ve gained from the military isn’t average. My breakthrough in the job hunt finally happened when I sought professional resume help from a military-focused organization that helps launch veterans into the workforce. The career counselor helping me took my average resume and made it stand out by highlighting my years of leadership and operational experience. 

Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), an advocacy and research organization aimed at disabled veterans, has a Veterans Career Program with a variety of resources to help support you as you seek employment, and identify possible barriers to employment. PVA’s Veterans Career Program is staffed with vocational rehab counselors and employment analysts who can help you create a traditional or federal resume that truly reflects your skills, write impactful cover letters, and practice for interviews. They also have PVA Veterans Career Live, which are virtual courses on a range of career topics to add to your toolkit. There are also courses about handling job rejection, how to tell your military story, and how to choose a major. I can’t express how helpful these services are, especially if you’re feeling stuck and need help moving forward. 

You don’t have to take your first job offer

This can look a couple of different ways, but it comes down to knowing your worth. First of all, you don’t need to say yes to the first company that wants to hire you. If you’re under financial pressure or feeling discouraged from weeks or months of looking for work, it can be super tempting to take the first job you can get. It’s ok to hold out for something better. You deserve to enjoy engaging work that suits your interests and abilities and compensates you fairly. If you’re having reservations about taking a position, it’s worthwhile to explore why you’re feeling that way. Are the work hours suitable for your lifestyle? Is the commute doable multiple times a week? What are the employees saying about this company? Do you feel the compensation is fair? Is this a rung in the ladder towards where you want to go with your career? What does the benefits package look like? 

Another thing to remember is that even if you want to work for the organization that’s making you an offer, you don’t have to accept their first offer. This takes understanding what your time and talents are worth in wages and benefits. Federal jobs don’t allow much wiggle room for salary negotiations due to the structure of the GS pay scale, but if you understand the ins and outs of the step progression within each grade, you might have some leverage for getting a better offer. Here’s a great article about how to fairly negotiate a federal job offer. If you’ve received an offer in the private sector you may have some flexibility to negotiate a better salary or benefits package. You can find some tips from Glassdoor here. It takes some confidence and savvy to negotiate a higher salary or wages, but if you know what you’re worth, it can pay off in the end. 

Disability isn’t an unemployment sentence

For many of us, the transition from military to civilian life is hard, and exponentially harder if you’ve got a new disability to reckon with. There’s a new pace of life to adjust to and sometimes we have to figure out a different way of doing things, including relying on others for help. My greatest fear, before I was reassured otherwise, came from my belief that my disability made me a liability in the workplace. I put so much pressure on myself to hide and diminish my condition, thinking no one would hire or retain me if I had limitations. Then someone told me about the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that prevents employers from discriminating against current or prospective hires due to their disabilities. And they are required to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities, like accessible parking, adaptive materials or equipment (like large-font printed materials or a desk that accommodates a wheelchair), or more frequent breaks so that you can work comfortably and effectively. Other laws, such as the Rehabilitation Act, offer protection against disability employment discrimination for federal employees and actively encourage federal contractors to recruit and hire people with disabilities.

There are also a lot of benefits to disability inclusion in the workplace. Often, people with disabilities have unique problem solving skills and bring different perspectives to the table than their able-bodied peers. A 2018 study by Accenture showed that workplaces that focused on disability inclusion and diversity had a 28% higher revenue over a four-year period and 30% higher profit margins than other companies. The study also showed that disability inclusion led to lower employee turnover, less absenteeism, and higher productivity. 

The online Job Accommodation Network is a great reference if you’re wondering what types of accommodations are allowed under the ADA based on various medical conditions. PVA is also a top-notch resource if you’re curious what your rights under the ADA are. They can also provide legal assistance and advocacy for your rights as a disabled person. A disability should never keep you from meaningful employment. 

There are countless other resources available to help you overcome roadblocks to employment, like VA benefits for medical coverage, special equipment, or adapted housing or vehicles. For more information on adaptive housing and automobile grants or other disability benefits from the VA, visit their website.

Follow your own path

I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as a linear career progression, especially after being forced to take a major life detour through disability and losing a career in the military. It can feel deeply disorienting trying to create a new identity and reassess lifelong goals and dreams. But it’s also a chance to take inventory of what’s truly important to you and create a new, albeit different, life for yourself. One important thing to remember is a lesson that took me years to learn but changed my life when I finally embraced it – you don’t just arrive at your purpose or fall into success. You find it or work for it or build it. And it takes time. Detours, setbacks, failures, and those didn’t see that coming moments are your building blocks to a more meaningful future. Take your time getting there, see where the path goes, and enjoy the journey. 

For career assistance from a vocational rehab counselor or to find out more about PVA’s Veterans Career Program, visit their website here.

This article was made possible by PVA’s Veterans Career Program.