June 13, 2007

SIUC prepares for influx of disabled veterans

by Andrea Hahn


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale wants to "roll out the red carpet" for veterans returning with disabilities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Disabilities Support Services reserved space for veterans at its weeklong Summer Transition and Inclusion Camp, which begins June 18. In addition, the staff hopes to establish a transition camp specifically for veterans as early as next year.

Media advisory

Media members who wish to cover the camp have several options that provide background activity for cameras and opportunities for individual interviews. Suggested times are: 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, June 18 at the SIUC Campus Boat Docks for and cookout and boat recreation; 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 20 at Giant City Stables for a horseback riding experience (exact time subject to availability of horses); and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 21 at the SIUC Student Center bowling alley. Particularly for the Wednesday activity, the staff suggests calling ahead to confirm schedule. Disability Support Services can be reached at 618/453-5738.

Director Kathleen Plesko said she anticipates substantial need for such services for veterans, both because of the severity of their injuries and the sheer number of newly disabled adults returning from war.

"We are looking even two years up the road," she said, noting predictions of at least 24,000 injured military personnel nationwide by that time. "They are injured in ways we haven't seen before because of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We are looking for ways to roll out the red carpet for our returning veterans with disabilities. Here we can evaluate their needs, make recommendations and train them to use adapted computer technology. Our mission right now is to get the word out."

The transition camp helps students with disabilities take the first step toward a college career that is essentially the same as for all other students. Many of those attending the camp are high school students preparing to leave home for the first time. In deference to their adult life experience, veterans attending the camp have the option of staying in a hotel rather than in the residence halls.

Though the main goal of the camp is to help students with disabilities merge seamlessly into a typical college lifestyle, the path to get there is highly individualized. Adapted computer technology available on campus includes eye-gaze programs that allow for hands-free computer usage, electronic book scanning and reading programs for students with impaired vision or other reading difficulties, and even brain-computer interface programs that use brain waves to operate a computer for those with severe mobility limitations.

Rita VanPelt, who coordinates the camp, said she hopes to establish a transition camp specifically for veterans with disabilities. She'll learn from veterans who participate this year what aspects of the camp best apply to their needs.

"We are unaware of any comparable experience in the state or even in the nation," Plesko said about the camp. While some computer training is available through the Veteran's Administration, it is not available in Southern Illinois nor does it combine the link to higher education. That link can be important for the new future a disabled veteran may face.

"Many veterans enlisted, at least in part, to offset college expenses," Plesko said. "When their ability level is significantly altered – if they can no longer see or walk, for example – they may think their original dream has eluded them. Our goal is to teach them that it has not. Also, some veterans interrupted higher education when they were deployed. We want them to feel welcome returning to school. We have a special place for them, special equipment for academic work and for play, and a special commitment to assisting them in achieving their dreams."

A typical camp day begins with intensive seminars in adaptive technology, mobility impairment survival strategies and study skills. "Some of the camp participants come knowing what is available to them in adaptive computer technology, and some don't know. We provide one-on-one training. We also help them pick a major that makes sense for their individual abilities," VanPelt said.

Plenty of time is left for recreation. Activities take place at the campus boat docks, the Student Recreation Center, the Student Center and at nearby facilities, such as Giant City Stables. VanPelt said it is important, especially for people facing disabilities for the first time, to realize they can still have fun and participate in recreational activities. The fun time is also a welcome respite from the hard work that comes with the intensive seminars.

"The opening day of camp, we have a tram tour of campus and a cookout at the boat docks," she said. "By the next morning, we start hitting it hard. It is some of the most pleasing, most fulfilling work of the year for me. They come here not knowing if they can do it, and they leave here knowing they can."