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Learning Disabilities in the U.S. Air Force: Becoming a More Inclusive Force

  • Published
  • By Capts. Alexia Mikulski, Janelle James, Diamond Zephir, Joelynn Leopard, Aaron Oats, and Andrea Ellis

The U.S. Air Force is a dynamic organization which is constantly adapting for the betterment of its service members. For example, in recent years, there have been intentional shifts in the way the U.S. Air Force approaches physical testing standards in order to accommodate a more inclusive force. As a result of these shifts, physical training standards have evolved from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to a more practical implementation which accounts for numerous duty positions with varying fitness requirements. Much like with respect to physical testing standards, senior leaders within the U.S. Air Force have committed themselves to collaborating with stakeholders both inside and outside of the military in an effort to evolve education-based technologies and strategies. In doing so, however, the U.S. Air Force has yet to remodel its approach to become more inclusive with respect to service members with differing cognitive abilities. Specifically, the U.S. Air Force has not yet contemplated how it can be more accommodating for service members with learning disabilities (LDs), or how LDs have an impact on service members’ Professional Military Education (PME).

An LD is defined as a “significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information [and] to learn new skills ... with a reduced ability to cope independently … with a lasting effect on development.”[1] In 2020, research revealed that “[LDs] represent the largest disability classification under special education law; approximately 34% of students ages 3 to 21 years who are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have an [LD] classification.”[2] The current statistics on adult diagnosis of LDs is very limited. However, while it is possible for LD diagnoses to form during adulthood, these childhood diagnoses will not disappear in adulthood. Therefore, we can assume these childhood statistics are representative of the adult population, if not an underestimate. While the U.S. Air Force is more restrictive than non-military organizations employing individuals who possess LDs, there are certainly U.S. Air Force service members affected by LDs.

The U.S. Air Force is in dire need of a remodeling the way it handles accommodations for individuals with LDs, and the justification for doing so is more extensive than one might think. The long term effects of creating a more inclusive workforce will not only encourage a more innovative environment, but it also has the potential to improve warfighting efficiency and overarching Economy of Force. Thus, considerations and accommodations for service members with an LD must be considered at multiple levels of a member’s career, including PME. Hopefully this article will shed light on a U.S. Air Force blind spot, leading to a more inclusive learning environment adaptive to the needs of all service members undergoing PME.

Applicable Law and Policy

  1. Accessibility and Accommodations

In the civilian sector, the primary source for guidance on handling accommodations for individuals with LDs in the U.S. is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects civilians with disabilities from discrimination and fosters an environment for equal employment opportunities, procurement of products and services, public accommodations, and the ability to participate in local and state government programs.[3] Unlike the civilian sector, the U.S. Air Force is not bound by the regulations of the ADA, but is bound by certain sections of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was enacted in 1998 by Congress “to [require] Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.”[4] Specifically, as explained in section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, agencies “must give employees … with disabilities access to information that is comparable to the access available to others, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency.” Similarly, to comply with the intent of the Rehabilitation Act, the U.S. Air Force published Air Force Instruction (AFI) 33-393, Electronic and Information Technology Accessible to Individuals with Disabilities, in April 2013. The purpose of this AFI is to give people with disabilities “the opportunity to maximize their contribution to the success of the U.S. Air Force mission by maximizing the accessibility features of electronic and information technology equipment.” However, although the U.S. Air Force is required to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, it is not currently required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment. [5]

  1. Qualification Standards

The U.S. Air Force imposes qualification standards that must be met where an individual does not pose a “direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace.”[6] Specifically, those standards are clearly defined in the Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 6130.03, Volume 1, Medical Standards for Military Service: Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction to Determine Physical and Medical Standards. According to this instruction, individuals with LDs such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder are disqualifiers to entering the military as a uniformed service member. Despite disqualifiers, individuals can formally request a waiver. A waiver request is a process where the applicant does not meet medical standards but provides necessary medical documents to support the waiver consideration.[7] The service member’s commander may also initiate a waiver consideration for the service member to be allowed to continue their duty if the value of their service outweighs the risk.[8]

Current uniformed military service members who are diagnosed with an LD while serving under their obligation contract are encouraged to speak with their command team regarding their new diagnosis. Potential risks and barriers to their Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) should be evaluated along with any recommended reasonable accommodations that can be made (although not required) to see if the service member is fit for continued duty. If the service member is not fit for duty, the service member will be administratively separated from service unless the service member can be reassigned to another AFSC that is more accommodating of their cognitive abilities.

Professional Military Education

To avoid stagnation in the PME structure, providing accommodations for service members with LDs is critical. Enlisted service members, the officer corps, and civilian employees should be given every opportunity to succeed in an academic environment so that when carrying out their official U.S. Air Force duties, the application of lessons learned have a more positive impact on their military profession. Recent initiatives from the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) have drawn attention to possible deficiencies within the current implementation of PME that are in need of revision. In May 2020, the office of the CJCS updated the Officer PME Policy with the ultimate goal of shifting Officer Joint PME to an Outcomes-Based Military Education (OBME). This was in response to “…the National Defense Strategy’s declaration that [PME] had stagnated,” which threatened the military’s ability to encourage and develop ingenuity in its service members.[9]

To successfully implement OBME, there are two critical considerations. The first is to clearly develop “…learning outcomes around which all of the system’s components can be focused.” Secondly, the organization must establish “…the conditions and opportunities within the system that enable and encourage students to achieve [the specified outcomes].” This updated policy goes into detail by outlining six standards for PME, however, Standard 2, the Academic Experience, incorporates the relevance of a military member’s actual capacity to learn. While it is incumbent upon students to actively engage with their peers and instructors to analyze the curriculum and discussions, all instructional methods should “…employ active student learning strategies where feasible,” implying that there are opportunities for instructors to adapt classroom rules and the environment to better engage their students.[10] The conditions outlined in this policy also apply to the enlisted core and civilian members throughout the DoD, and specifically to the U.S. Air Force. The Barnes Center Strategic Plan is an additional document dedicated to outlining U.S. Air Force priorities for enlisted PME and helps reiterate common themes from the officer PME guidance, especially the need to develop airmen and space professionals prepared for today’s security environment and promoting an agile learning system.[11]

Case Studies

When focusing on LDs within the U.S. Air Force, it is important to look at the private sector, civilian dominated organizations, and other military institutes regarding accommodations for service members with LDs within a working and learning environment. In correlation with the Learning Disabilities Association of America, it is advised that industries utilize learning advances such as screen-reading and speech-to-text software and applications, assigning on-the-job mentors, and providing agendas for tasks along with additional time to comprehend new tasks.[12] Tax exemptions can be granted to these companies to ensure reasonable accommodations are fulfilled when needed.

The U.S. Air Force has been efficient in ensuring that the ADA is upheld and providing accommodations for future and current civilian employees through the Affirmative Employment Program office. Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) at Wright Patterson Air Force Base collaborated with Wright State University (WSU) in developing a summer program that immerses near-by college students with autism spectrum disorder in U.S. Air Force civilian positions.[13] It falls under the AFMC’s Workforce Recruitment Program, which works to recruit a mentor for each student throughout their internship. Many universities and colleges have an office for student disabilities that not only assists with reasonable accommodations on academics but also, as annotated above, ensures opportunities beyond higher-learning education are achievable.

Over the years, there has been an increase in the number of individuals with reported LDs pursuing a postsecondary education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “nineteen percent of undergraduates in 2015–2016 reported having a disability…26 percent of [these] undergraduates who were veterans reported having a disability.”[14] In 2012, a study examining 1,289 records for students with disabilities (e.g., cognitive, mental, or physical) across three public universities was conducted comparing disability services students were qualified for to graduation rates.[15] It showcased that accommodations are not universal and should be tailored for each disability to be successful.

In August 2021, an anonymous Qualtrics survey was created and disseminated to more than 100 Squadron Officer School students at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. The results revealed that several students believed they could benefit greatly from quiet rooms, more advanced audio-visual capabilities in the courseware, text to speech and conversion applications. Of the survey responses available, 100 percent of service members who claimed to have either a diagnosed or undiagnosed LD also stated that they felt they had not been provided with adequate resources to accommodate their LD in the PME environment. As research had to be conducted in a short time period, limiting the number of survey responses collected, it is recommended that this Qualtrics survey be disseminated to future PME classes at the beginning of the Squadron Officer School course.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) also provide an excellent example of effective LD accommodations put to use in a military environment. Canada has implemented a Defense Administrative Order and Directive (DAOD) to tackle LDs in the CAF during recruiting, training, and education. Individuals with an LD are directed to military occupations that can accommodate their functional limitations and recommended accommodations. Accommodations are based on whether or not the individual can meet the minimum operational standards despite having an LD. If an individual meets minimum operational standards, then accommodations are honored as long as it does not cause hardship to the CAF. If standards are not met then the individual needs will not be accommodated. All individuals with LDs who meet minimum operational standards will be provided with military career counselors during recruiting, training, and education. The counselors will ensure the operational CAF and the individuals' needs are met. Some individualized accommodations approved by CAF are the use of assistive and communication devices, schedule changes, and support services.

While accommodating service members with LDs, the DAOD has promoted an inclusive working environment by assigning appropriate occupations for success and reducing training and education failures.[16] We can see from the above example that these accommodations for service members with LDs are intended to guide CAF applicants not only through initial recruitment and job placement, but also intended to continuously enhance the learning-disabled member’s ability to perform at their highest potential while actively serving in their given duty position. The U.S. Air Force recruitment, aptitude screening and job placement process could learn much from this process.


Having an LD while undergoing PME may have a direct effect on how personnel perform as professionals in the U.S. Air Force. Although not always in a classroom setting, service members continue to develop and grow through on-the-job training and hands-on experiences. Resources and accommodations should remain readily available throughout an individual’s career, not just during PME. There are a multitude of resources and programs available for adults with LDs. The Learning Disability Association of America has done an astonishing job at gathering and disseminating these resources to assist adults and professionals in combating the struggles that are associated with having a LD.


One recommendation for accommodating individuals with LDs in the PME environment is to provide learning resources in multiple mediums such as audio and visual recordings, writing centers, and mobile applications. This would not only serve as an alternative method to learning, but will suffice as a time-saving approach in information retention of students. However, there may be drawbacks in making these resources available. For example, audio and visual recordings can be costly ranging in the thousands per hour, require a significant amount of time to narrate and edit the recorded material, and acquire copyright infringement which would prevent the continued usage.[17]


It is clear that U.S. Air Force service members have differing abilities and occupy different AFSCs. While the U.S. Air Force has been proactive in creating an equitable and more practicable environment concerning physical fitness standards given the diversity of duties and abilities service members occupy, this same logic should be applied to PME and training as it relates to service members with different cognitive abilities. By following the recommendations listed above, there may be a way to utilize the strengths and potential of service members with LDs and to follow the CAFs example of a more inclusive and ultimately stronger force.


Captain Alexia Mikulski
Capt. Mikulski is currently the Chief of Targets for RED FLAG-Nellis and a member of the 547th Intelligence Squadron. In this role she coordinates target development for the Air Force's largest live-fly exercise. She has served in multiple roles including as an Admissions Advisor for the United States Air Force Academy, the Chief of Mission Operations for the 89th Operations Support Squadron, and as the Air Mobility Working Group Coordinator for U.S. Air Forces Central Air Mobility Division.

Captain Janelle M. James
Capt. James is currently a Technical Training Instructor at the 335th Training Squadron, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. She accounts for approximately 250 Force Support officers annually, training on tactical AF/A1, Personnel, Manpower, and Services, operations and competencies across the Total Force spectrum. As a member of the United States Air Force, Captain James has held a variety of personnel and services positions to include Section Commander for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Military Personnel Flight Commander at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Officer in Charge of Readiness and Plans for the 8th Force Support Squadron at Kunsan Air Base, Korea.

Captain Diamond D. Zephir
Captain Zephir is the Deputy Chief, Military Justice at the 96th Test Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, FL. Before entering active duty, Capt Zephir received her Juris Doctor degree from Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, NC. Captain Zephir practiced criminal law for two years as an Assistant Public Defender representing adult and juvenile defendants, and spent one year in private practice representing individuals, business owners and public agencies in criminal and domestic disputes, civil litigation, and administrative hearings. Captain Zephir received a direct commission as an Air Force Judge Advocate and entered active duty in March 2019. She is admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of North Carolina and the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.

Captain Joelynn R. Leopard
Capt. Leopard is currently a masters prepared registered nurse for the largest inpatient behavioral health unit at Brooke Army Medical center, 959th Inpatient Operations Squadron in San Antonio, Texas. Capt. Leopard also holds the chair position for the Facility Nursing Practice Council which promotes nursing excellence through oversight of 26 unit practice councils. Capt Leopard has over 14 years of mental health nursing experience. She has served in many capacities including: charge nurse, nurse educator, nurse manager, nurse recruiter, and nurse executive for mental health. She has also worked in different mental health settings such as, inpatient, outpatient, residential, and day programs. Capt Leopard is nationally certified by American Nurses Credentialing Center for Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse and Nurse Executive. She also has a certification in project management since 2002 and holds a certification as a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma.

Captain Aaron M. Oats
Capt. Oats is a KC-10A mobility tanker pilot and the Command Support Flight Commander for the 6th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California. Captain Oats has flown the KC-10A since 2017, completing four combat deployments and working as a shop chief in two separate squadrons. He received a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Science from the Air Force Academy in 2015. He attended Squadron Officer School by correspondence in 2021 at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, where he received the award for Top Contributor in his 20-member flight. He is currently working through a Masters of Psychology in Industrial and Organizational Psychology through Liberty University, VA, where he maintains a 4.0 GPA.

Captain Andrea N. Ellis
Capt Andrea N. Ellis is an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate for the United States Air Force Warfare Center (USAFWC) at Nellis AFB, NV. Capt. Ellis provides legal assistance to Airmen, retired service members, and dependents, and drafts legal reviews in the fields of contract law, environmental law, ethics, administrative law, claims, and investigations. Capt Ellis joined the Missouri Army National Guard in June 2010 and commissioned in May 2012 through the ROTC Program at Georgia State University through dual enrollment with Spelman College. Capt Ellis received a direct commission as an Air Force judge advocate in November 2019 and entered active duty in November 2020. Capt Ellis is admitted to practice law in the state of Missouri.



[1.] Amy M. Russel, Louise Bryant, and Allan House, "Identifying people with a learning disability: an advanced search for general practice," British Journal of General Practice 67, no. 665 (2017): e842-e850.

[2.] Benjamin J. Lovett, "Disability identification and educational accommodations: Lessons from the 2019 admissions scandal," Educational researcher 49.2 (2020): 125-129.

[3,] U.S. Department of Labor, n.d., Americans with Disabilities Act, accessed August 17, 2021.

[4]. Air Force Instruction 33-393, Electronic and Information Technology Accessible to Individuals with Disabilities, Section 508, 3 July 2019, page 2 (citing Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title 29 United States Code Section 794d 36, CFR, Part 1194 and 1194.4, Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards)

[5]. Air Force Instruction 33-393, Electronic and Information Technology Accessible to Individuals with Disabilities, Section 508.

[6]., 2009, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, As Amended, June 15, accessed August 17, 2021.

[7]. United States Department of Defense, 2021, DoD Instruction 6130.03, Volume 1. April 30, accessed 19 August, 2021.

[8]. United States Air Force, 2020, Medical Standards Directory, May 13, accessed August 19, 2021.

[9] James Lacey, “Finally Getting Serious About Professional Development,” War on the Rocks (2020):

[10.] Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020, CJCS Instruction 1800.01F, Officer Professional Military Education Policy, May 15, accessed 10 August, 2021.

[11.] Barnes Center for Enlisted Education, 2020, Strategic Plan, May 5, 2020, accessed August 10, 2021.

[12.] “What Employers Should Know about Learning Disabilities.” Learning Disabilities Association of America. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Accessed August 29, 2021.

[13.] Estella Holmes, “AFMC Autism at Work Program Open to Students on the Autism Spectrum,” Air University (AU), May 15, 2021.

[14.] “Digest of Education Statistics, 2019,” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, National Center for Education Statistics, February 2021.

[15.] Pingry O'Neill, Laura N, Martha J Markward, and Joshua P French, “Predictors of Graduation Among College Students with Disabilities,” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 25, no. 1 (2012): 21–36.

[17.] Major Benjamin Staab (Squadron Officer School, Instructor) in discussion about providing additional resources for students at SOS, August 2021.


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