Influence & Promise

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2014

From medical treatments to accessibility, these people have affected some of the biggest and most historic changes in the history of SCI/D.

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Trying to select noteworthy influencers in a specific field is a daunting task, especially when it comes to the world of spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D).

So much work has been done to help extend and improve the lives of people with SCI/D by so many people in such a relatively short period of time. People with SCI/D are living longer than ever because of increased standards of care, better technology, new laws and greater accessibility.

In honor of National Spinal Cord Injury Month, the PN staff decided to take a look at just a few of the people behind some of that work. We came up with a list of several people who’ve made a big impact in the SCI/D world.

This is by no means a top-10 list, it’s not limited to any one group and we’re not handing out awards. It’s simply the people we believe have made some significant contributions who should be recognized this month.

Ernest Bors

There are 24 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) SCI centers across the country and all of them can trace their founding back to one man: Ernest Bors, MD.

An emigrant to the United States in 1938, Bors became interested in SCI while caring for veterans during World War II. He developed better ways to manage SCI complications by producing protocols for treatment and rehabilitation. His approach helped create a basis of care that would be duplicated at other facilities.

Because of Bors’ success in treating patients, he was placed in charge of the first SCI center at Birmingham General Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., in 1945. Military doctors from around the country came to learn from Bors.

Bors’ influence also extended to what would become the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). George Hohmann, PhD, was a founding member of PVA and was transferred to Birmingham in 1946. Encouraged by Bors, Hohmann and others advocated for the VA to establish SCI centers. That advocacy played a part in the decision by Hohmann and others to start PVA.

Soon, SCI centers were being constructed across the nation and Birmingham General Hospital eventually became the Long Beach VA Medical Center. Bors went on to write more than 140 scientific papers and coauthor a major textbook on SCI care with Estin Comarr, MD, Neurological Urology, Physiology of Micturition, Its Neurological Disorders and Sequelae.

Bors won PVA’s Speedy Award (nonmember) in 1964 and is remembered each year with the presentation of The Ernest Bors Award for Scientific Development, which is administered by the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine.

Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) President Leslie Burghoff and his wife, Lois, present the Speedy Award to Donald Munro, MD, at the 1966 PVA convention.

Ralph Braun

Nicknamed America’s “father of mobility,” Ralph Braun helped make it possible for people with SCI/D to become more mobile.

From motorized scooters to wheelchair lifts to a whole corporation focusing on wheelchair lifts and ramps, he was one of the kings of improving wheelchair accessibility.

Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as a child, he was left unable to walk when he was 15 years old. Tired of pushing himself around, Braun invented the first motorized scooter called the Tri-Wheeler, using parts from his cousin’s farm, to get to work, then started the Save-A-Step company and built scooters for customers in his parents’ garage.

When his work facility moved a few miles away, he built the first wheelchair lift. Braun added hand controls and a hydraulic tailgate lift to an old post office Jeep. Only a few years later, after Dodge introduced the first full-sized van, Braun came up with another invention — putting his lift in one and calling it the Lift-A-Way wheelchair lift. And in 1972, he changed Save-A-Step to The Braun Corporation.

He helped The Braun Corporation become an innovative leader in creating vehicles to help people with disabilities become more mobile and independent.

Rory Cooper

When Rory Cooper, PhD, isn’t busy distributing funding for SCI/D research studies on the PVA Research Foundation Board of Directors, he’s in the lab doing research himself.

More specifically, as the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) founder and director, Cooper has spent many successful years working to improve mobility and function for those with SCI/D through rehabilitation and research.

Since his days as a doctorate student, Cooper has moved toward that goal by looking at the ergonomics of wheelchair propulsion. He has focused on examining ways to reduce secondary disabilities from repetitive strain injuries occurring from use of a wheelchair, such as wrist pain and carpal tunnel syndrome caused by the exertion used to push a manual chair.

Among the solutions he created to help with those type of problems is an ergonomic handrim. The design of the rim requires 16% less exertion to propel the chair forward. About 70–80% of people using the rim said they had less pain in their hands and wrists.

But that is just one of a long list of achievements and products. The Paralympic bronze medalist is also considered an authority in wheelchair design and technology. He influenced the racing wheelchair, power chairs and currently does work with robotics to improve functionality for power chairs and all people with disabilities.

Justin Dart Jr.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) literally and figuratively helped open doors for people with SCI/D and Justin Dart Jr. is widely regarded as one of the fathers of that landmark legislation.

Forced to use a wheelchair after contracting polio in 1948, Dart spent decades as an activist and advocate for people with disabilities. Besides helping pass the ADA, he also co-founded the American Association of People with Disabilities.

After graduating from the University of Houston in 1954 and building several successful companies, Dart and his wife, Yoshiko, decided in the early 1970s to dedicate themselves to advocating for disability rights.

Following his appointment as vice-chair of the National Council on Disability in 1981, Dart and his wife set out on a nationwide tour to meet with activists and individuals with disabilities. The trip was significant since accessible accommodations and transportation were hard to find at that time.

The journey and conversations helped Dart and others on the council draft a national policy calling for an end to discrimination against people with disabilities. That policy would eventually become part of the ADA.

Dart sat next to President George H. W. Bush when he signed the ADA into law in 1990. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Marilyn Hamilton

In a backyard garage with the help of two engineers, Marilyn Hamilton manufactured the first Quickie wheelchair. Its lightweight, collapsible frame revolutionized mobility in the SCI/D community making the Motion Designs, Inc. co-founder a standout influencer.

After being injured in a hang gliding accident in 1978, Hamilton began using a 60-pound wheelchair, a standard at the time. The two-time Paralympic silver medal skier, six-time national ski champ and two-time U.S. Open wheelchair tennis champion found the chair to be cumbersome. That’s when she thought of a way to make the chair light and adjustable for ease of use in travel, sports and everyday life.

Hamilton and hang gliding friends Jim Okamoto and Don Helman took the same materials used in hang gliding gear to build the Quickie — the first ultra-lightweight wheelchair.

The wheelchair was not set apart in functionality alone. It also offered the user a chance to personalize the device with a variety of colors and attachable accessories. With this one product, Hamilton wiped the clunky hospital wheelchair out of the picture and created a new standard for wheelchair mobility.

Donald Munro

During a time in history where the life expectancy for someone with SCI/D was horrifying by today’s standards, Donald Munro, MD, refused to accept the status quo.

Sometimes called the “father of paraplegia,” Munro is credited with helping establish the first SCI unit in the United States at Boston City Hospital in 1936.

He established a multidisciplinary, holistic method of care for people with SCI/D that inspired other pioneers in the field such as Bors.

A Harvard Medical School graduate, Munro served as a surgeon in the Army medical corps in France during World War I. He later joined the staff at Boston City Hospital and specialized in neurosurgery.

When the hospital started treating people with SCI/D, Munro developed a strong interest in those patients’ care. He incorporated bowel and bladder management, occupational therapy and addressed their socioeconomic needs as part of their treatment.

Munro showed that with the right care, patients could live longer and better lives. His optimism and efforts earned him many honors, including the PVA Speedy Award (non-member) in 1966.

Timothy Nugent

If knowledge really is power, than Timothy Nugent is the man who helped bring strength to people with SCI/D by opening the door to a college education.

A World War II veteran, Nugent founded the first comprehensive program of higher education for people with disabilities in 1948 at the University of Illinois. He turned what at the time was considered an experiment into a program that would become the nation’s model for accessible higher education.

Nugent was just 24 years old when he was placed in charge of a veterans rehabilitation program at the University of Illinois’ branch campus in Galesburg, Ill. The program started slow and it was announced in April 1949 that the Galesburg campus was to close.

However, Nugent and his students campaigned to keep it open with trips to the state capital in Springfield, Ill., and rallies on the university’s main campus in Urbana-Champaign. Just one month later in May, the university announced the Galesburg students would be accepted at the main campus.

Nugent served as director of the division of rehabilitation-education services from 1948–85. He went on to help create wheelchair college basketball teams at Illinois and formed the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.

Today, the University of Illinois is considered one of the most accessible universities in the nation.


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