The People, Places & Things

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News December 2015

A celebration of accessibility, new technology, a long-term care center and honoring some amazing people helped make 2015 a special year

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Depending on when you’re reading this month’s article, looking back at this past year there could be only a couple of weeks, a few days or just hours left in 2015. The ending of one year and the start of the next always brings a combination of reflection and hope as we ponder the past and look to the future. When it comes to looking back on 2015, the year had a mix of joy, sadness, frustration and optimism.
From celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to honoring an iconic senator, to finally seeing a new long-term care facility open, to remembering a Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) legend, it’s been a busy year. There’s no way we can fit everything that happened this year into this issue of PN, but here’s a look at what we remember about 2015.

The ADA Turns 25

The ADA turned 25 this year and while there’s much to celebrate about this landmark ruling of accessibility, there’s still more work to be done. PVA helped lead the charge for passage of the ADA in 1990 and has since fought against efforts to weaken it. Since its enactment, the ADA has been influential in fighting discrimination in areas of employment, public services, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications for individuals with disabilities. Still, while much progress has been made over the last 25 years, there’s still more to accomplish. Architecture, transportation, employment and housing remain areas where drastic improvements need to be made to open opportunities for people with disabilities.
“What’s interesting is that we have an ADA generation — people who are around 25 years old who have lived all or part of their lives with a disability and the ADA and haven’t necessarily experienced egregious disability discrimination,” says Lee Page, senior associate advocacy director for PVA. “Having said that, we continue to look forward because there is so much that can be improved.”
Former Sen. Bob Dole was presented with PVA’s inaugural Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award in July. The U.S. Army World War II veteran and former presidential candidate has been a national leader on behalf of veterans, the disadvantaged and disabled.
Nearly three decades before the ADA came into existence, Dole was a newly-elected senator from Kansas using his position to bring national awareness to the struggles faced by Americans with disabilities. In fact, during his first speech in the Senate in 1969 he proposed federal aid for people with disabilities.
“Senator Dole is one of the disability and veterans community’s greatest champions, and we are privileged to honor him tonight,” says PVA National President Al Kovach Jr. “He has devoted his entire life to advancing the cause of people with disabilities, as well as advocating for the men and women who have served and sacrificed for this nation.”

A “Personal” Visit

It’s not unusual for the PVA to see dignitaries speaking at its yearly convention leave quickly because of a busy schedule, but that certainly wasn’t the case at May’s 69th annual convention.
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald made a much-appreciated two-day visit to this year’s convention in San Diego. Before serving as the keynote speaker, McDonald received a firsthand look of what paralyzed veterans really go through during their recovery.
McDonald toured the VA San Diego Healthcare System Spinal Cord Injury Center with PVA National President Al Kovach Jr. and Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr. He talked with spinal-cord injury patients about the VA. He later attended the convention’s opening reception on the USS Midway Museum’s flight deck, chatted with PVA members and their families and learned how the VA could help them. It left a lasting impact.

The VA's new SCI Long-Term Care Unit in Long Beach, Calif., includes high-tech equipment. Photo Marc Hubbard.
“To be able to go through the spinal cord clinic with Al and Sherman and to hear their personal stories made it personal for me,” McDonald says. “And one of the things you learn in leadership is that it’s the stories you remember.”

New Long-Term Care Facility

Following years of advocacy  from PVA, the first long-term care facility for veterans with spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D) west of the Mississippi River finally opened its doors this summer.
The VA Long Beach Healthcare System officially opened its new Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Long-Term Care Unit Sept. 9 in Long Beach, Calif. PVA has advocated tirelessly for a long-term care unit in Long Beach for more than 10 years and was instrumental in providing clinical and architectural expertise in the design.
“After 10 years of championing the construction of the new center, we are proud to see the clinical and architectural expertise we provided finally pay off,” says PVA National President Al Kovach Jr., who attended the opening. “The doors are now open and ready to serve those veterans who might otherwise have nowhere else to go for long-term care.”
Designed and built for non-acute patients, the Long Beach Spinal Cord Injury Long-Term Care Unit leverages the latest in high-tech equipment to enable veterans to have better access to entertainment, socialization and independence. The center offers a home-like feel with public living room areas that encourage socialization, as well as private rooms that give each patient personal space.

A Lasting Mark

At the beginning of this year, PVA lost one of its most beloved members and longest-running secretaries in 
its history. Frank Rigo died with his family by his side Feb. 18 in Phoenix after being hospitalized with cancer. He was 91.
A PVA member for 57 out of the organization’s 69 years of existence, Rigo, born in Arizona, served an impressive near-30 years over two stints as national secretary. He was called “a living plethora of history about PVA” by former PVA national president Bill Lawson.
“I have seen many positive changes for people with disabilities in my 87 years – from curb cuts to medical advances,” Rigo said after being re-elected national secretary for the final time in 2011. “Paralyzed Veterans has led the charge for these positive changes and we have much more work to do.”

Providing Big Help

Veterans with disabilities and their families received more than $1 billion in benefits, including more than $290 million in new claims, from the VA during the 2014 fiscal year thanks to PVA.
Released in April, the 2014 Annual Report — A Lifetime of Service details how PVA secured those benefits for more than 60,000 veterans and their families across the country. Besides detailing the financial help PVA provided, the report also includes more information on these accomplishments:

Expanded outreach to veterans’ caregivers, which included advocacy within VA facilities, benefits and claims assistance and vocational resources.
Opened its eighth Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) office in Chicago to provide vocational services to veterans, their families and caregivers in the region.
Expanded its sports programs to include boccia and is exploring other exciting sports, such as wheelchair lacrosse.
Hosted more than 600 health care professionals at its annual health care Summit, one of the world’s leading conferences in the specialized field of spinal cord injury and disease care.

Financial Flexibility

VA Secretary Robert McDonald now has the financial authority he sought to try and deal with the VA’s budget problem. During May’s PVA 69th Annual Convention in San Diego, McDonald said fixing the VA’s budget deficit could be as easy as moving money in the budget around, but rules at that time prevented him from doing that.
During a House Committee hearing in June, McDonald asked for that permission and in August he received the flexibility he needed.  Since passing the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, the VA has fallen short nearly $3 billion for care purchased in the community. The new law, PL 114-41, the “Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act,” gives the VA the authority to transfer up to approximately $3.3 billion from the “Choice” fund to fill that budget gap. 


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