Improving Knowledge and Lives

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2017

From research with Amazon Echo to a program on independent living, PVA Education Foundation grants look to help everyone with SCI/D.

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Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) has been advocating for and assisting veterans who’ve sustained a spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) for more than 70 years. However, PVA’s unique expertise in spinal-cord injury (SCI) issues doesn’t stop with veterans. From helping to write key parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act to working to improve air travel to funding SCI research, PVA has long been a champion to assist everyone and anyone with SCI. Education has also been a big part of PVA’s many programs, and this year is no different. Once again, the PVA Education Foundation has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to educational projects that push innovation, help with the understanding of SCI and enhance the quality of life of individuals with SCI.

One-year grants are offered in five categories: assistive technology; conferences; patient consumer and community education; professional development and education; and research utilization and dissemination. For more information on the PVA Education Foundation, visit

The following are brief descriptions of the 2017 grant awardees and their respective studies. 

Assistive Technology
Artificial Intelligence – Cost Effective Alternative to Conventional ECU

Peter Hunt, PhD

Southern California Institute for Research & Education


The development of artificial intelligence is a relatively new phenomenon. Artificial intelligence that interacts with smart-home devices could revolutionize the way people operate electronic household devices. Such artificial intelligence could potentially be a more cost-effective alternative to a conventional environmental control unit (ECU). Amazon Echo is an example of such artificial intelligence, which has the ability to perform many similar functions as conventional ECU.  Amazon Echo is relatively inexpensive and readily available to purchase on 

However, whether or not Amazon Echo can replace conventional ECU for veterans with high-level SCI remains unknown. The goal of this project is to explore all the possible features and functions of Amazon Echo in comparison to conventional ECU, to learn more about how veterans with SCI will use Amazon Echo in home settings and how this technology will affect their quality of life.

7th Annual KARRN Conference:  Engagement, Communication & Access

Patrick Kitzman, PhD

University of Kentucky


The proposed conference will center on a theme of “Engagement, Communication and Accessibility” and expands on the concept of accessibility beyond basic physical access to include knowledge, resources and collaboration. Using a model of achieving access through engagement and communication, the morning session will focus on practical methods for engaging people to become active participants in shared decision-making. Next, establishing appropriate patient-provider communication that includes assistive technology and augmentative communication technology will be discussed. Practical steps on how this process can be implemented, as well as the challenges to its successful implementation, will be presented. The afternoon presentations will apply this model to evaluation of seating and mobility and will include case study videos and demonstrations. The final presentation will focus on innovative technology to maximize function, building on the conference objectives of improving access through engagement and communication. 

Spinal Cord Injury Through the Continuum of Care Conference

Lauren Vagelakos

Orlando Regional Healthcare


Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute (OHRI) is part of Orlando Regional Medical Center located in downtown Orlando, Fla. Given the location, which is both central to the city and the state, OHRI sees on average 49 patients per year with a diagnosis of traumatic SCI. To better serve the community, OHRI will be hosting a three-day Spinal Cord Injury Continuum of Care Conference for SCI care professionals this fall. Conference topics will include trauma, intensive care unit and acute care (Day 1); inpatient rehabilitation (Day 2); and outpatient rehabilitation (Day 3). In addition, the conference will cover care management, care coordination, transfer training, mobility skills and assistive technology. The goal is to provide hands-on educational and training activities to SCI care professionals in the community in order to better serve and care for individuals with SCI in Central Florida.

Patient Consumer & Community Eduction
Living Healthy with SCI for Independent Living

Shannon Carter, MS Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association


The Living Healthy with SCI for Independent Living is a seven-week educational program that addresses the lack of access to health, prevention and education resources, all of which help individuals acquire the skills, education and hands-on experience necessary to transition to the community and maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. The Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association believes in the need for those living with paralysis, along with their families and caregivers, to learn the importance of health and wellness and how to avoid the dramatic effect of secondary conditions on reintegration into the community.

The Living Healthy with SCI for Independent Living Educational Program supports the PVA Education Foundation’s mission by enhancing the quality of life for individuals with SCI/D through education and peer support and is inclusive to veterans and their families/caregivers. There is one seven-week session scheduled this fall and a second session scheduled for spring 2018.  

Pressure Management in Adapted Sports

Ian Rice, PhD

University of Illinois


Adapted sports are increasingly recognized as a potent, cost-effective tool for the management and prevention of secondary health complications among veterans living with SCI, which has led to increased government funding of sports equipment and participation opportunities. However, research and educational resources on training and proper utilization of sports equipment haven’t matched the influx of new participants, which may place individuals at risk for complications like skin breakdowns and pressure ulcer (PU) formation. Therefore, the purpose of this project is to 1) identify salient factors related to the person and the user-equipment interfaces which influence risk of PU development during adaptive sports, and 2) develop online educational guidelines outlining identified risks and associated strategies to minimize their occurrence across many popular sports. It’s hoped that this information will represent a first step in developing comprehensive guidelines for safe and effective participation in adapted sports.

Wheelchair Tai Chi Ball Training Program for People with Spinal Cord Injury

Yong Tai Wang, PhD

University of Texas–Tyler


Individuals with SCI may rarely participate in existing health promotion programs, and the inactive lifestyle can have significant health consequences. This project is to combine a mind-body exercise with strength training — Wheelchair Tai Chi Ball (WTCB) program for individuals with SCI. The Tai Chi Ball can be separated into two parts (yin and yang) by rotating them and combined as a whole during the exercise. The specific arms of this project are to: develop WTCB12 forms, to train WTCB instructors for the individuals with SCI and to make the WTCB12 exercise program accessible to people with SCI; implement a three-month WTCB12 intervention for individuals with SCI and examine the effects of this WTCB12 intervention on physical and mental health and functional abilities, including reduction of pain, upper-extremity range of motion and muscle strength, vital capacity and self-perceived physical and mental health.

Professional Development & Education
Developing a Curriculum on Grief/Loss Due to SCI for Health Providers

Sherri LaVela, PhD, MPH, MBA

Chicago Association for Research &
Education in Science


Grief is a natural reaction to a loss or unexpected life change. Our prior research showed that a large majority of individuals with SCI, across various durations and levels, experience grief/loss due to their injury. To some degree, grief immediately after injury may be necessary to positively adjust to SCI. Currently, there is no agreed upon way to define grief and to understand what is considered “normal” or “abnormal,” how long it “should” last or how to address it. This highlights the need to develop an educational curriculum to help health care professionals identify and take steps to address grief/loss due to injury. This project aims to educate health providers and persons with SCI about (a) potential consequences of feelings of grief/loss due to injury, (b) how to prevent their occurrence and if they do occur (c) how to deal with and overcome these feelings.

Research Utilization & Dissemination
Community Conversation: Veteran Engagement Through Shared Voices

Marylou Guihan, PhD

Chicago Association for Research &
Education in Science


Engaging veterans in research has the potential to ensure that their preferences, needs and values are met and ensure that findings are more patient-centered, useful and trustworthy. 

Specific aims include: 1) assessing veterans’ and caregivers’ knowledge of and interest in identifying research gaps/problems, potential solutions, target outcomes and dissemination of research results; 2) examining factors that contribute/detract from veterans’ interest/ability to engage in research (e.g., knowledge, attitudes, experiences) and  3) selecting a group of veterans and caregivers to participate in a grant review to determine whether additional training is required to improve the review process. Focus groups with approximately 35 veterans with SCI/D will be conducted at two Department of Veterans Affairs centers. Results will be used to guide future development of curriculum materials to facilitate the participation of veterans and caregivers in a veterans’ engagement group to assist in grant reviews.


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