Going Platinum: PVA at 70

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News February 2016

It's been 70 years since a small group of paralyzed veterans started what would become the nation's premiere organization dedicated to the care and advocacy of veterans with SCI/D

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It was July 1946 and the Unites States was still working to recover from World War II, which ended almost a year earlier. Recovery was also on the minds of a group of veterans with spinal-cord injuries (SCI) whose simple idea to exchange information would lay the groundwork for the creation of something much bigger — the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).

Being treated in ward 3D at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in New York, the veterans wanted a way to share news with other veterans with SCI and medical professionals in the hopes of making their care better.

To aid that effort, they created the first issue of The Parapalegia News. Now known as PN, the four-page inaugural issue’s goal was straight-forward and spelled out as part of its lead story on page 1:

“This paper is published with the earnest desire that it will become a sounding board for the expression of your ideas and suggestions for improving our mutual welfare.” 

The modest-looking first issue included letters of congratulations, a story on nutrition, a poem and more. There was also an unassuming article with another straight-forward idea on the final page titled We Must Organize. The group wanted to “organize a paraplegic association” to keep the paper going and properly present their “ideas or complaints” to the hospital manager.

Providing a bit of irony, the veterans of ward 3D noted in the article that their new group could “affiliate with a national organization, if and when such an organization becomes a reality.” They called a meeting on July 31 of that year to elect local officers.

Read the article below

Eight total groups from across the country formed around this idea and seven sent delegates to the Hines (Ill.) Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital on Feb. 7, 1947, to officially form the Paralyzed Veterans Associations of America. PVA’s seeds were planted and ready to grow.

A Disabilities Trailblazer

Flash forward to today and it’s amazing to see how a grassroots effort by a small group of veterans has grown into the only congressionally chartered veterans organization dedicated to the benefits and representation of veterans with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D).

Starting in a single hospital ward, PVA now serves an estimated 100,000 veterans with SCI/D through more than 70 offices and 34 chapters in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 

Making it this far was no simple task. Trying simultaneously to build an organization from scratch while aiming to help seriously injured veterans included numerous challenges. PVA withstood legislative barriers, funding deficiencies and even questions about the usefulness of the group. However, PVA weathered those early problems and grew stronger.

Departments and programs to promote health, wellness, awareness, sports and recreation were created. PVA helped improve VA SCI centers and increased its advocacy on Capitol Hill. People also began training as National Service Officers to better help veterans obtain and protect their VA benefits. 

PVA hasn’t stopped with making life better for veterans either. Over the last 70 years, PVA has used its influence and efforts on laws, research, education, accessibility and health care of major importance to all people with disabilities including:

  • Providing key input into the drafting of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and (ADA) advocating for its passage
  • Donating hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to research and education grants
  • Helping to establish the Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research at Yale University
  • Playing a key role in the creation of the Air Carrier Access Act and continuing to help improve the flying experience for people who use wheelchairs
  • Hosting the annual PVA Summit + Expo that provides updated and vital information, state-of- the-art research and emerging science
  • Consulting on the accessibility of numerous stadiums, arenas, parks and municipal transportation across the country

PVA continues to be a trailblazer for disability rights with new and ongoing programs that help everyone. The organization also remains at the forefront of fresh, inventive projects for veterans, including one of its biggest accomplishments in the last 10 years — Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment).

Partners For Life

PVA’s Operation PAVE isn’t just designed to help veterans get a job; it was created to help them find a career. 

Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) staff members and guests pose in front of PVA's national office in Washington, D.C., for the organization's 50th anniversary. (PVA Publications archives)

Launched in 2007, Operation PAVE ensures veterans not only find employment, but have the continued support to be successful throughout their entire career. The program offered by PVA in every VA spinal-cord injury center is unique in that it provides holistic, ongoing and integrated support to U.S. veterans, transitioning service members, military spouses and military caregivers.

Master’s level, certified vocational counselors and trained employment support analysts are available to assist clients in overcoming their individual set of barriers to employment. All services, from résumé assistance, interview preparation, vocational counseling or employer networking are provided at no charge — and are available to dependents as well.

“One of the most unique characteristics of the PAVE program is our ‘Partner for Life’ commitment,” says Operation PAVE director Shelly Stewart. “Our counselors provide ongoing post-placement support to veterans and employers to ensure that our clients not only find employment, but have the tools and resources to maintain it. As their personal and professional needs and goals change, clients appreciate that our counselors and analysts are there for them every step of the way.” 

Since the program’s inception, PAVE has served more than 2,500 veterans and military families. With all this growth, there are plans to expand PAVE in the future, particularly through partnerships with higher education institutions and military establishments. 

The program continues be highly acclaimed as well. Last October, PVA was honored for Operation PAVE with The Call of Duty Endowment’s (CODE) 2015 Seal of Distinction award. One of only three veterans service organizations to receive the honor, the award is the preeminent standard of excellence in the veterans’ employment sector. 

“The best evidence of the PAVE Program’s success is written on the faces of the veterans and caregivers we’ve placed, and we will use this opportunity to expand our reach, serve more people, and do our part to further drive down veteran unemployment,” says PVA Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr.

Operation PAVE is one of the more current ways PVA is innovating to make life better for severely injured veterans. However, another area that has seen great strides over the last several years isn’t new — advocacy.

Bringing About Change

When that group of veterans in ward 3D at the Bronx Veterans Hospital first met, their main goal was to organize so they could properly present suggestions and grievances to make their lives better in the hospital.

Out of that idea grew PVA’s Department of Government Relations, which is responsible for the planning, coordination and implementation of the national legislative and advocacy program agendas with Congress and federal departments and agencies. 

Since that time, the legislative and advocacy influence and achievements of PVA have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of veterans and others with disabilities. While some of those laws and regulations have been with us for many years, PVA has also played key roles in these areas over the last several years.

National Advocacy Program

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (PL 113-128, enacted in 2014): This bipartisan, bicameral legislation was widely recognized as the most significant reform of federal job training programs in more than 15 years and a critical step toward helping workers and employers succeed in the 21st-century economy. It strengthens the public workforce system and the partnerships that sustain it, by unifying and streamlining services to better serve job-seekers.

Provisions of particular importance to veterans with disabilities include enhanced connections between state and VA vocational rehabilitation programs and provisions reinforcing veterans’ priority of service in all programs funded by the Department of Labor. 

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148, enacted in 2010): Through this law, insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to someone with a disability or charge people more because of pre-existing conditions. Nor can insurance companies place lifetime caps on how much they’ll pay for care if a person gets sick or acquires a disability.

The Affordable Care Act also extended the Money Follows the Person program to support state efforts to transition individuals from institutional living back to the community. In addition, the new Community First Choice Option allows states to offer home- and community-based services to disabled people through Medicaid rather than institutional care in nursing homes.

National Legislative Program

Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act (PL 113-146, enacted in 2014): Following the access crisis that enveloped the VA health care system after problems were first identified at the Phoenix VA medical center in April 2014, Congress established the Veterans Choice program, expanding access to care options. The program is meant to make it easier for veterans to access health care in the community when a VA medical center isn’t in a position to meet the demand for services. 

VOW to Hire Heroes Act (PL 112-56, enacted in 2011): While a great deal of effort has been focused on unemployment of veterans in the post-9/11 generation, this legislation took the unique step of focusing reemployment and training programs on older generations of veterans, not just post-9/11 veterans. 

Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act (PL 111-81, enacted in 2009): This made the health care funding accounts of VA (Medical Services, Medical Support and Compliance, and Medical Facilities) advance appropriations. It removed funding of the VA health care system from the political gridlock that prevents Congress from fulfilling its responsibility to fund the federal government by the start of a new fiscal year.

ADA Amendments Act (PL 110-325, enacted in 2008): The law was a response to a number of decisions by the Supreme Court that limited the rights of persons with disabilities. The law effectively reversed those decisions by changing the law. It also rejected portions of the regulations published by
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It makes changes to the definition of the term “disability,” clarifying and broadening that definition and therefore the number and types of persons who are protected under the ADA and other federal disability nondiscrimination laws. It was designed to strike a balance between employer and employee interests.  

The Boys In Ward 3D

There’s so much more to PVA that a single article can hardly do it justice. However, recent achievements by programs such as Operation PAVE and efforts through legislation and advocacy make it easy to see why the organization has been so important and influential during its 70 years of service to veterans and others with disabilities.

There will be further celebrations marking PVA’s 70 years of changing lives and building brighter futures for veterans and others with disabilities, including May’s 70th Annual National Convention in Jacksonville, Fla., and the 36th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games this summer in Salt Lake City.

Whether you’re at these events or reading about them in PN, remember, it was the boys in ward 3D that really got things rolling.

Special thanks to PVA Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Carl Blake for providing the legislative and advocacy information.


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