FALLS CHURCH, Va.- This is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This year’s theme is “Advancing Access and Equity: Then, Now and Next”. Things have come a long way, according to Retired Army Sgt. 1st Cass Roy Mitchell, who is the Lead Transition Coordinator today at the Fort Drum Soldier Recovery Unit.
“A lot of things have changed. The unfortunate situation was the large number of injuries that came out of conflicts following 9-11; the population of people with disabilities grew astronomically over a short amount of time. It did, however, create this entity of outside of their disability, that this was a healthy, younger population of individuals that had desires and dreams and the athleticism to force that world to step up to the plate.”
Mitchell would know. He was part of that population. On November 23, 2003, while on a routine patrol in Afghanistan, his vehicle rolled over a Russian anti-tank mine at the Pakistan border and exploded.
He lost three-quarters of his left leg, burned on the left side of his body, shattered his left elbow, lost teeth, had a broken jaw, and shrapnel in his right eye. He stopped counting at 50 surgeries. “It’s not a number I want to boast about, but at one point, my occupational therapist at Walter Reed told me I was leading the number of trips into the Operating Room.”
Mitchell, a married father of five, knew he had no choice but to navigate his new normal. He sees quite a difference today. “When I was forced into this world in 2003, it was different. Things have improved greatly with legislation, the sports community, the accessibility part of the equation, the airlines, and more.”
He understands the trepidation with every movement made once you have a disability and shares it with Soldiers when the time comes to have the “Let me tell you what happened to me “story.
“I Don’t sugarcoat it. I tell Soldiers, this is a new normal for you, and you have to identify what that means for you and your family because it's different for everyone. Once you figure out what that is, then we can start moving forward with help.”
Part of that help is keeping up with legislation and offering assistance to Soldiers while encouraging them to commit to the process.
“I think that there's an underlying level of thought that has to go into everything that you do once you are in this world that falls into Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. There's a lot of planning and research that has to be accomplished. For me personally, it's about being able to go out in public without bringing any more attention to myself than I already naturally do.”
Mitchell says it’s about accessibility and equity, and he’s happy to report that the two have improved tremendously over the past twenty years, partly because of legislation and education.
“Opportunities are there, and Employers are seeing how people with disabilities can be a force multiplier within their business. They can most assuredly be a high-level contributor to that business. That wasn’t the case ten years ago when it came to reasonable accommodation and having to look at an individual with disabilities, whether it was the workforce or even going to college. There have been a lot of changes for the positive in the last 20 years,” said Mitchell.
It takes everyone working together to make the process better. He says that includes the Soldiers he works with today. Again, it’s about getting involved in the process that will help the Soldier, their family, and the next guy.
“The things you do in life echo in eternity.” I live by this Russel Crow line from the movie The Gladiator and share it with Soldiers. I believe when I was in uniform working with my fellow Soldiers to now working with Soldiers and their families, what I am doing hopefully will be echoed into eternity.”
He is proud to help navigate those force multipliers for businesses and watches with pride how we, as a country, are improving with access and equity.
“I'm excited to see what the next 20 years are going to bring.