AIRA Enhancing Independence Through Human Interaction

Our community of blinded veterans continues to grow. The population of older veterans who are more at risk to develop vision issues is living longer. In addition, with improved battlefield medicine we see greater numbers of survivors of injuries, many of them vision-related.
These men and women are returning home from the most recent conflicts and are attempting to enter the mainstream of society and take their rightful place within that mainstream.

One organization believes that the answer lies at the intersection of technology and human interaction. We believe that this opinion may be absolutely correct. Aira, a San Diego-based technology and services innovator, has created a solution that further enhances independence for our already independent blind and low-vision community.
The concept underlying the solution is simple: When given equal access to visual information comparable to that of a sighted person, the blind or low-vision person can operate more independently and with even greater confidence. Such a visual assistant should think like a set of eyes rather than as a brain. Blind or low-vision persons are perfectly capable of making decisions and need access only to missing visual information in order to make informed decisions. They should not necessarily have to rely on prescriptive directions from a third party on what to do with such information.

Have you wished for an on-demand sighted assistant to guide you while shopping, cooking, or just walking around the neighborhood? Many of us reside with family members or have nearby friends and other individuals to aid in these tasks—but not all of the time. Even after completing training from a Blind Rehabilitation Center and becoming equipped with portable Optical Character Recognition solutions, money readers, and the countless applications on iPhones, we as visually impaired veterans may still overlook or completely miss part of an address or the “Entrance Only” sign for the door of an office building.

The solution outcome has been Aira’s services platform, which incorporates Smart glasses, broadband services, and an agent network, into a fully integrated solution that provides immediate access to information about surroundings or elements within those surroundings. Users wear a pair of Smart glasses with an embedded video camera, an audio headset, and a GPS tracker. They are supplied with broadband network services which enable remotely located agents to view the users’ surroundings, get a precise location on those users, and then provide information that is relevant and helps them decide what actions to take.

Although technology is the key, it is the Certified Agents that provide the all-important human interaction many veterans prefer. Aira agents are trained on how to find and provide information through a proprietary agent dashboard based on location, time of day, obstacles to travel, nearby venues, and other important elements for the user to factor into a decision.

Access to the agents is a simple process. An Aira user presses a button on the glasses or the application on the Smart Phone to initiate a session with an agent. The response is immediate. A user can interact with an agent that is randomly contacted, or he/she can specify one with whom there is already a relationship. While the service is not yet available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the goal is for this to occur by end of the year. Agents are available currently from 4:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

Additionally, agents remotely serve the role of visual assistant, able to read labels, menus, instructions, or other items that may be important to the user at any given time. Most importantly, agents and users create relationships over time and establish confidence in one another.

It matters not if you prefer the white cane or a guide dog, this will certainly not change while using AIRA. In fact, the company’s founders claim that they will never suggest that their services become a replacement for a service animal or family member serving as a visual assistant. Despite this, we are finding any number of activities that Aira enables that are simply not otherwise possible. Here are a couple of them to consider:

  • Paul, as a totally blind veteran, used the service to shop in a big box retailer. The agent helps him navigate the aisles and then locate items on the shelf. It even reads labels via the glasses. Additionally, the agent is able to identify special deals through the store’s website and makes Paul aware of them.
  • An anonymous veteran of whom we are aware used the service to assemble a piece of furniture. With the agent identifying parts from 500 miles away and relaying directions found online, the blinded veteran user performed the assembly work. This dynamic team of three, two individuals plus the Internet, was able to achieve a task that simply would not be possible otherwise.
  • Other users arranged an Uber ride from their house to Walmart. The agent notified the individual when the driver approached the house. The agent also informed the individual of the Uber driver’s location. Once the agent received the individual’s shopping list, they quickly picked up all items on the list. The agent even described items on sale or nearby alternative items based on the individual’s preference. completion, the agent hailed an Uber ride back home, alerting and guiding the individual to the car.

There are many uses for the Aira service and virtually no limit as to what the agent and user can accomplish together. In the words of noted speaker and 9/11 survivor Michael Hingson, he himself blind, this is a game changer.
At present, Aira services are modestly priced to ensure broad access by the blinded veteran community. They are not yet available as a prosthetic device through VA Blind Rehabilitation Service, efforts between AIRA and the VA’s Prosthetics and Blind Rehabilitation Services are negotiating the particulars. We must remember AIRA is a subscription-based service. Currently two sites started evaluating AIRA. Once adopted, blinded veterans will be able to request information about Aira.

Personally, I am looking forwards to adopting AIRA to assisting in achieving several personal goals. First and foremost, AIRA will enable me to understand and engage with various activities involving my daughter. I am looking forwards to hearing play by play when she is on the soccer pitch or at a swim meet. I am now looking forwards to running down to the store and grabbing a few items for dinner or just perusing aisles independently. Finally, AIRA will allow me to break barriers when reading research articles littered with graphs, tables, and charts. OCR fails to recognize or often destroys these graphical depictions of data, forcing me to miss crucial points. I do not expect every agent to interpret these items perfectly, but it beats the complete inability to handle such information.

This article was crafted by Amy of AIRA, Paul Mimms, and Timothy Hornik.

@USABA Announces the Competitive and Recreational Community Sports Integration Project for Visually Impaired Veterans, a @VAAdaptiveSports Grant Funded Program

Military service, regardless of the era, emphasizes physical fitness and exercise. Remember all of those long ruck marches, unit fun runs, and PT tests? Yes, like many of you I try not to as well, but one cannot argue against the amount of research and information about the benefits of exercise to combat adverse health and mental health conditions. More importantly, organizations like USABA; Team Red, White, and Blue; Achilles, and your local sporting groups built tremendous communities with a vested interest in our wellbeing. Participation only requires your interest in trying it out.

USABA just rolled out a new program aiming to encourage visually impaired Veterans’ participation in local adaptive sporting and athletic events. The Community Sports Integration Project funds visually impaired Veterans registration and travel, so that they have the opportunity to participate in competitive and recreational sports in their local and regional community. Through a VA adaptive sporting grant, USABA will provide Veterans reimbursements for entry fees for the following events:

  • 5k to marathons
  • Cycling events
  • Triathlons, (Sprint and Olympic distance only
  • Powerlifting meets
  • Rowing regattas
  • Challenge events like Tuff Mudders and Warrior Dashes
  • Swim meets
  • Other competitions and tournaments for golfing, bowling, sailing, and other sporting and athletic events

Please note, multi-day events, camps, and ‘tours’ will not be considered. Likewise, events utilizing funds from the VA Adaptive Sports Grant will not be covered due to VA policies. Veterans will be provided t-shirts and other apparel to wear while competing when sport applicable.

Any visually impaired Veteran may apply, regardless of your age, whether you are recreationally participating or fighting to win, or location. Funding is available on a first come, first serve basis for any event starting July 1st until September 30th, 2017. If this interests you, here are the project’s guidelines:

  1. Contact the project coordinator with information about the event you wish to participate. The coordinator will provide initial approval, along with a packet containing USABA apparel to wear during the event.
  2. Participate in the event wearing the USABA apparel and share a photo of you on social media with the tags, @USABA and @VAAdaptiveSports/. If you do not have any social media accounts, send the project coordinator a photo of you so they might perform this step.
  3. Submit your official result to the project coordinator. This can be submitted as a link to race results or a printed result.
  4. Mileage stipends will be considered for events more than 50 miles away one way. Stipends will be capped at $75. Please seek approval before regional events from the project coordinator.
  5. Reimbursements must be submitted to the project coordinator by the 10th of each month to receive the same month. Reimbursements may cover the registration costs for both the Veteran and their sighted guide (if the activity requires one) and travel up to $75 (waivers are available).

If you have questions, please contact the project coordinator before your event. The project coordinators are:

Timothy Hornik
timothy.hornik@gmail.com
(785) 330-3503

Ryan Ortiz
Assistant Executive Director, USABA
rortiz@usaba.org
(719) 866-3025

Remembering Armed Forces Day

67 years ago today, President Truman celebrated the first Armed Forces Day. This stems from the unification of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps under the Department of Defense. Today, each of the uniformed Services celebrates Armed Forces Day alongside their own birthdays. This instills the one team mentality, since all of the branches support and defend our country. Before going further into Armed Forces Day, let us pay tribute to them through their slogans:
Air Forces Aim High, fly, fight, and win. 
 Army’s Army Strong. 
The Coast Guards, Semper Paratus English: Always ready. 
Marine Corps is Semper Fidelis or always faithful. 
Navy’s is Semper Fortis or Ever Strong. 
Today Armed Forces Day resides in a very fitting timeframe. First, May is military Appreciation Month. May’s chances to admire the beautiful flowers and plant new crops, is similar to Armed Forces Day chance to admire our military prowess and culture, while planting the seeds for the next generation to serve. Fittingly, Armed Forces Day resides between two extremely important day of remembrance. Last week, we celebrated Military Spouse Appreciation Day. Every individual who raised their hand and swore an oath to serve and protect the Constitution of the United States did not do this alone. They were not only surrounded by their fellow Service Members, but their families and friends. We cannot preform our mission without our loved ones, for they provide us with strength, courage, and hope. Next week, we will come together for the most important of all of the military and Veteran days of remembrance, Memorial Day. There is nothing more important than remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those who have passed on. Its by remembering, we live up to the Warrior Ethos, to never leave a fallen comrade behind.
This placement truly allows the three main goals for Armed Forces Day to be achieved. First Armed Forces Day informs our civilian counterparts about the duties, responsibilities, equipment, and sacrifices of our fellow Service Members and their families. Secondly, it bridged the gap between civilians and the military by jointly exploring the role of the military in civilian life. Finally, Armed Forces Day honors all of those who served, as we prepare ourselves for Memorial Day. 
Achieving these three objectives is more important today than ever before. Our current military composition of all volunteers means serving is a choice. Many of you remember a time when we had the draft. Today our new recruits, Cadets and midshipmen decided to join, with a large majority doing so because their fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and/or teachers showed them the impact of service. Unfortunately this means the number of families and communities who have a direct connection to current service members decreases each day.
Its more important than ever we take the time to explain to our communities about how the modular force structure and deployment cycles work. NO one knows this lesson more than our Guardsmen and Reservists who do not have the liberty of being around a military installation where everyone knows and feels the impact of a deployment. Instead our Guardsmen and Reservists have to explain to their places of employment that they will be gone for a set period of time. Their families have to teach their children’s teachers that their child is acting up because their family structure has been disruptive. Finally, when our Guardsmen and Reservists reunite with their families, they do not have the number of post-deployment resources which encompasses military installations.
Without us taking the time today to execute the mission of Armed Forces Day, how do we expect to ensure our fellow Service Members, Veterans, and their families possess the chance to enjoy the freedoms paid for by their service?
How else do we establish the framework to stress the importance for the Department of Veterans affairs and all of our programs and non-profits who care for those who bore the cost of service?
How else do we create an environment where our fellow Service Members, Veterans, and families understand they are not alone?
Take a moment today and reflect how the military impacts your life and communities. Even if you live far away from a military installation, I bet you are, know, or walk by a Service Member, Veteran, or family member. As you look around your house, garage, or neighborhoods, I bet you will find products developed for the military. Finally, if you look around medical institutions and interventions, you will find many life saving treatments and therapies designed to save or prolong the lives of our brave Service Members. The US Armed Forces are here to support and defend us all.

Help the VA Revamp Its Digital Presence Through the US Digital Services Cohorts Study

Have you ever wondered how and why the VA developed their online interfaces? Many ask this question, especially since many pages and online resources might be accessible but far from usable. This is where the US Digital Services agency comes into play. The US Digital Services falls under the executive branch, after President Obama established it in 2014. The notable achievements of this self-described “SWAT Team of nerds” includes the Vets.gov, website to streamline Veterans experiences when accessing services, and saved the federal healthcare marketplace after its abysmal role out. Additionally, the team aids other state and federal entities, like the Department of Defense and various educational institutions, clean up and enhance usability of web-based an other electronic interfaces.

Based on early successes US Digital Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs decided its time to obtain the feedback from Veterans, caregivers, supporters, and other individuals who utilize VA services. The hope is to increase the number of Veterans who apply for benefits and services, which is at 10% for first time VA healthcare enrollees. Let’s face it, the reason stems from the VA’s over reliance on PDF’s and paper-based forms. These outdated communications methods not only impinge Section 508 compliance for the blind, but simply fail to address the evolving way our millennial’ Veterans interact within the digital landscape. The resolution is the new streamlined and accessibility healthcare digital application.

Ad Hoc spearheads the Cohort study on the behalf of the digital Services and VA. This is the team that created the previously mentioned online application for VA healthcare services, and now aims to expand to all other facets of VA programs and services. If you wish to contribute your experiences, please sign up by clicking here. This will take you to a webpage to learn more about the project. Then you will have to provide your basic contact information and preferred method of contact. The Ad Hoc team will then contact you.

Do not let this opportunity to restructure the VA’s digital presence slip by. To often do Veterans and caregivers comment about the usability of VA websites, and this is our chance to assist the agency which supports us through its benefits and services. I already signed up for the study, and I hope each of you do the same.

So what happens next? After signing up, you will be contacted by a person from Ad Hoc. The first call will just obtain some basic demographical information about yourself. The representative then mention possible upcoming sessions that will ask you to go through some websites and provide feedback. Once completed, you are then eligible for a $25 Amazon or PayPal gift card.

Important Items to Know

  • This has not been open to the general public, though all information cited above can be found through public access points.
  • Participation requires you to digitally sign a consent agreement. This is currently inaccessible for screen readers, as you cannot read the consent form and none of the text boxes are labeled.
  • The bulk of the assessment occurs through the VA’s e-benefits and Vets.gov websites, so make sure to have your DS account prepared

Trekking Through the Bataan Memorial Death March

The 26.2 mile Bataan Memorial Death March challenges your humility, endurance, and perseverance. The trial originates from the high desert trails consisting of sand, gravel, and paved roads admits the Organ Mountains on White Sands Missile Range. The 3,970ft average elevation of Las Cruces adds an extra bonus for those participating from lower altitudes.

The Bataan Memorial Death March commemorates the forced march of Filipino and American civilian and service members captured on April 9th, 1942. Approximately 10,000 individuals died along the roughly 62-mile route to the Japanese camps. The original participants consisted of the survivors from the battle for the Philippines, which started in December 1941. Reflecting upon the casualties from the original death march and what the survivors endured leaves me speechless. The stroll we do today keeps these brave souls alive. Listening to those around you and assisting your fellow marchers provides a glimpse into this tragic event.

Even more inspiring is the chance to meet and walk with the Veterans of the Bataan Death March. COL Ben Skardon was 24 years old when captured by the Japanese. This year marked the tenth time the 99-year-old walked 8.5 miles of the route, surrounded by family and friends. Along the route, I had the pleasure to meet a daughter of one of the Bataan survivors. Her story about her Dad carrying his brother, who later died on the route, left me absolutely speechless. When she thanked me for my service, tears came to my eyes as I attempted to convey my gratitude for the sacrifices made by her and her family.

Steve, Marshall, Nate, and Kevin talking during breakfast the day before the Bataan Memorial Death March.
My participation stems from efforts by Operation Peer Support of the BVA and Blind Endeavors. Nate Gorham, Steve Baskis, Lonnie Bedwell, Dan Standage, and I comprised of the first five man blinded Veteran Team. Nancy Fairbanks, Kevin Baskis, and Victor Henderson served as our guides and supports along the route. Terry and Maryellen Kebbel, hosted our group with the assistance from their friends Jim and Nina Schaeffer, Marie and Al Hughey, and Eileen and Harry Monahan. We also had the distinct pleasure to meet fellow blinded Veterans and hero, Marshall Lynch, who charged across an island with 75 Marines during island hopping operations but only 18 survived.
Jim and Tim discussing plans for the Bataan Death March the day prior over breakfast.
If you are wondering how five blinded Veterans navigate a 26.2-mile trek through the desert, let us say it required some trial and error. First, we used a combination of trekking poles, white canes, iTunes Music, and other vocal commands. Our formation possessed a center point consisting of Kevin and Steve Baskis walking in single file connected with a cane. Steve carried a Bluetooth speaker which pumped out a series of playlists from iTunes Music from his iPhone 7 throughout the entire time. The music allowed everyone else to orientate off the audio cues. Lonnie with his tremendous hearing followed behind Steve with a trekking pole and white cane. I floated either behind Lonnie or to Kevin’s front guided by Victor. I relied on either two trekking poles or a trekking pole with a white cane. Nate and Dan relied on their residual sight and canes with guided assistance as needed. Nancy, a VA bind rehab center instructor, ensured we stayed on point and not go wondering off through the desert. Amazingly many of our fellow participants did not fully realize we were blind, especially when Lonnie starts dancing mid trail.
Nate, Steve, Terry, Tim, and Guide Dog Black Jack sharing stories about being a blind Veteran over the generations.

Both the two trekking poles methods and a trekking pole and a white cane permitted me to independently navigate. The two trekking poles method requires each pole is extended so your hands and arms rest comfortably about chest level. Each time you swing your arm, place the tip of the pole in front and outside your foot by a foot. This aids in your balance and awareness of the trail. The trekking pole with a white cane preforms a bit differently. The pole reinforces balance with limited trail feedback, while using the white cane as normal. A pencil, ball, or hook tip will work, but keep a loose grip.

The The various types of sand, gravel, and roads presented different challenges. Two to three foot sand berms acted like bumpers but the loose sand and gravel made walking straight very difficult. The paved road was easy to navigate with the white cane, but very difficult with the two trekking poles. Finally the course contained many congestion points forcing us to rely on walking in tandem. . So just as we developed a groove, environmental factors prevented complacency. If anything, the variations frustrated my sense of independence by forcing reliance on guides.

The Bataan Memorial Death March is a huge highlight in my life for two reasons. The adventure permitted me to complete my first marathon, accompanied by my friends and fellow Veterans. Hopefully this will not be my last time storming through the White Sands Missile Range, learning about the sacrifices of so many and connecting with nature.

Reflecting Upon Dr. David Shulkin’s Selection as Secretary of Veterans Affairs

The testimony of Dr. David Shulkin should relax Veterans. His hearings and unanimous approval by the Senate transpired with little positive or negative excitement from anyone. In the short history of the new administration and 115th Congress, this is a sigh of relief. However, the lack of responsiveness may leave many not knowing much about our new Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Dr. David Shulkin comes to the Secretary position after spending the last 18 months as the Under Secretary of Health for the VA. This experience enables him to start off with inside knowledge about the VA and its current beneficial programs and controversies. His years as a medical doctor, leadership roles in other healthcare settings, growing up in a military family, and practice experiences at VA medical centers outweigh the fact he never personally served in the military. The combination of these items affords him the knowledge to continue Secretary Robert McDonald’s initiatives, while establishing his own priorities.

The VA’s scandals allured Dr. Shulkin into the Undersecretary position. He stated in his Congressional testimony, “I view my service at V.A. as a duty to give back to the men and women who secured the uniquely American freedoms and opportunities we all enjoy,” due to the barriers to timely service Veterans face. This sense of both urgency and duty stems from his Grandfathers service in WWI, father’s service as a Psychiatrist and Captain, and his own residency experiences in a VA medical center.

Dr. Shulkin’s 18 months as President’s Obama’s appointee to the Undersecretary position enabled him to understand, “it was years of ineffective systems and deficiencies in workplace culture,” that lead to many VA problems. Numerous VA employees from healthcare providers and counsellors to departmental chief echo similar comments. Additionally, break down in communications between the various VA layers restrict the flow of information and knowledge throughout the entire system.

Dr. Shulkin informed Congress it will require years to resolve the numerous concerns and barriers impacting VA’s service to Veterans, so his first act increased urgent care clinics and same day appointments for those in crisis. Just like anyone us, us Veterans sometimes just need these types of crisis based services to resolve many of our healthcare needs.

By attending many of the Veteran Service Organization’s annual conventions and conducting town hall forums throughout the country, Dr. Shulkin obtained direct input from individuals to major stakeholders in the VA. He realized Veterans receive the VA as “one V.A., and not as three separate administrations.”

After all the VA consists of the Veterans Healthcare Administration (BHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemetery Administration. Supporting the thousands of VA employees, Dr. Shulkin informed Congress, “that V.A. has many dedicated employees across the country, and our veterans tell us just that every day.” I completely agree with this statement.

Many of the frontline VA employees care deeply about Veterans services and will figure out workarounds when barriers exist. For example, Blind Rehab Services acknowledge the barriers Veterans with visual impairments face, and often become our advocates when requesting prosthetics. Many Social Workers in case management roles will synchronize appointments to reduce travel barriers and fight for us to receive appointments in specialty clinics. Primary care managers will take advantage of the Choice Program upon request and justification.

Dr. Shulkin’s most impressive statement pertained to VA reform. “It is unfortunate that a few employees who have deviated from the values we hold so dear, have been able to tarnish the reputation of so many who have dedicated their lives to serving those who have served, but there should be no doubt that if confirmed as secretary, I will seek major reform and transformation of V.A. There will be far greater accountability, dramatically improved access, responsiveness and expanded care options, but the department of veteran affairs will not be privatized under my watch.”

This answers many of the questions about Dr. Shulkin’s positions addressing VA issues. First, this statement coincides with legislative efforts over the last several years to eliminate loopholes used by VA employees facing putative actions. Secondly, he will continue efforts impacting Veterans’ abilities accessing everything from healthcare services to backlogs I benefits processes. Finally, Dr. Shulkin will not standby as legislators attempt to destroy the Department of Veterans Affairs by privatizing it. These stances mirrors the resolutions adopted by Veteran Service Organizations, like the Military Officers Association of America, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Veterans groups and Dr. Shulkin do not oppose the Choice plan, but we do oppose privatization. Dr. Shulkin seeks to “strengthen system within V.A that are essential for veteran well-being, and use services in the community that can serve veterans with better outcomes and value to the taxpayerk.” Dr. Shulkin cited about 5,000 Veterans solely rely on the Choice plan for all of their care, but the majority of the 31% of Veterans who use the Choice plan prefers a combination of both VA and private care. The VA remains the best provider for many specialty care services and therapeutic interventions predominately found in Veterans populations, like Post Traumatic Stress, Agent Orange and other environmental exposures, and many other conditions.

When addressing Veteran suicides, Dr. Shulkin stated, “we have made significant progress in suicide prevention, including hiring more mental health professionals, implementing a predictive tool to identify those at greatest risk and fixing the crisis line to better serve our veterans.” By impacting access to urgent care and mental health services, Dr. Shulkin suggestions mirrors findings from a national Veterans suicide study from 2016. The study reported failure to access VA services on a regular basis, along with age are key lethality factors. The predictive tool and increase in mental health providers aims to resolve these concerns.

Based on Dr. David Shulkin’s Congressional testimony and supportive actions, I feel he will continue to positively impact the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, I say this with some apprehension. Dr. Shulkin is one individual, and many systems impact the daily to longitudinal operations of the VA. We still will have employees enhancing and diminishing VA services. We will still have legislative priorities assisting and hindering VA progress. We still have a Veteran population steadily dwindling, removing the percentage of the public who directly and intimately knows a Veteran. Therefore it is our job as Veterans to make sure decision makers and stakeholders know our thoughts about the Department of Veterans Affairs. We need to speak up at civic events, writing editorials to news outlets, and contact the offices of our elected officials.

Responses to the #CriptTheVote Activism and Identity Questionnaire

Alice Wong recently posted the below series of questions related to disability identity and activities for the #CripTheVote movement. This movement aims to encourage individuals with disabilities to engage in the political process. #CripTheVote achieved its initial goal related to increasing the public awareness of topics and concerns shared by the disability community and increased the number of individuals with disabilities who voted. With the 2016 election cycle over, the next phase strives to increase the public awareness for disability concerns and ensure our voices remain heard as the new administrations and congressional representatives establish and pursue their own agendas.

The below questions comes from the #CripTheVote blog. While the post requests one to answer via twitter, 140 characters is not enough to answer these questions.

Q1 Community check-in: How are you feeling right now given the recent events after the Inauguration? How are you coping?
The events following the inauguration excites and concerns me. The editing part stems from the number of individuals who raise their voices in protest and celebration. I am excited by those who took to the marches to demonstrate opposition to policies and who cheer for these same actions. I am excited to witness so many individuals who finally escaped their silent cages and freed their voices and opinions. What makes freedom free is the ability to fight for your beliefs. We are not going to always get along, but we do need to acknowledge the existence of multiple perspectives, where the wrong views are those who wish to silence or repress others.

This is what concerns me. We have numerous elected officials to private individuals minimizing or ignoring these very demonstrations of our right to speak, assemble, and publish news. We see more finger pointing and entrenchment of political beliefs. We are becoming more polarized than ever before. The cause originates from both parties, and I do not see anyone in the current administration who may forge a compromise.

I cannot support anyone still in a state of shock or disbelief regarding the elections’ results across the country. This thought lasted about 5 milliseconds after reading the results the following morning. After that moment, I started to investigate the actual positions and policies the elected officials would put forwards and started to investigate which coincide or run in opposition to my own beliefs.

Q2 What does activism mean to you? What kinds of activism are you involved with?
Activism is any action one takes to express their thoughts related to a topic. This may be informal conversations with your friends to strategic educational advocacy campaigns targeting those who possess the power to change situations. Activism may be letters, conversations, marches, Facebook posts, inaction, and any other method to convey your thoughts.

Personally, I have written numerous emails and attempted to call the offices of my elected officials related to local to national concerns. In each correspondence, my goal involved stating the subject, how it impacts my life, and potential solutions. Leaving any of these out enables the recipient to either fill in the blanks or discard the message.

Q3 Do you think of yourself as an activist or advocate? Why or why not?
I am a advocate. This is part of the professional identity I cultivated since accepting my blindness and establishing my disability identity. We all need to be our own advocate, since only you know what it is you believe.

Q4 How did your disability identity develop in relation to other identities you inhabit?
My disability identity evolved during my Masters in Social Work education. Until this point, I fought my blindness diminished my value as a military officer, husband, friend, and human. After all, I needed the assistance of others just to arrive at meetings on time or to read paper handouts. Social Work education instructed me on the importance of the right of self-determination, empowerment perspectives, and being your own advocate. This allowed me to see myself as a person with many more gifts and strengths to offer the world than what I lost from going blind.

The development of the disability identity transformed fly identities associated with the military, Veteran status, husband, father, friend, family member, and every other identity I possess. No longer did I feel my disabilities conflicted with other aspects of my self. The result is a congruent set of identities, where each borrows from another but none over powers the other. I am proud to call myself disabled, blind, Disabled Veteran, father, husband, advocate, son, guide dog handler, and Army retiree.

Q5 When did you become politicized? How are you shaped by your culture, beliefs, and communities?
The shift from political bystander to active participant required several years. Prior to my blindness, I barely knew the names of our senior elected officials and how legislation impacts my daily life. Following my injury, I started to listen to AM talk radio, talk politics with the strongly Christian conservatives military and GS office mates, and participate in online discussion forums. Naturally my political leans swayed conservative, but I was not able to acquire alternative view points from non-biased sources.

My political leanings steadily moved towards liberal views during my Social Work education and subsequent years. This stems largely from diversifying my friends and social contacts, promoting a richer understanding about the different layers to each issue. Then I learned how local to federal to international policies and agendas impacts my rights for an accessible and equal world, and embraced liberal stances safeguarding disability rights.

Q6 Not everyone is on Twitter or interested in political participation. How can we encourage disabled people to get involved?
Diffusion of an idea requires a multi level approach. Individuals with disabilities not currently engaged with the #CripTheVote movement requires their trusted friends and families to talk about the concepts of the movement. These trusted individuals start to cast light on the #CripTheVote movement, establishing credibility. Next an individual will need to consume content from the movement, solidifying the movement to the individual. Finally, the individual must experience the movement, affixing an emotional reaction to the movement.

Q7 What are some barriers that get in the way of more disabled people from participating in any form of activism?
Knowledge. Knowledge about the issues. Knowledge about how policies impacts the individual. Knowledge about ones role in the process. Knowledge about who to contact for more information. Knowledge about how to interact with elected officials and community leaders. Knowledge that they have the freedom to engage in activism. Knowledge different activism venues and methods are accessible. Knowledge that one will not lose benefits, rights, or supports by becoming active. Finally, knowledge that their voices are important and equal to all other voices.

Q8 There’s the phrase ‘the personal is political.’ If that resonates with you, what issues are hitting you hardest right now?
The nomination for the Department of Justice. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the Department of Justice’s interpretation for teeth. Should the Department of Justice loosen or eliminate consequences for ignoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, I will lose the only legislation permitting my guide dog in public establishments. I will lose trust in my elected officials and the department of Justice to support my rights as a disabled person. I fear accessibility will become voluntary, and digital interfaces will not have to comply to any web accessibility initiative guidelines.

Q9 As you look forward to the rest of this year, what do you need to sustain your activism? What will help?
Hope and trust. Hope the political pandering from both sides will subside and pragmatic evidence-based solutions will arise. Hope that activism will remain one of our freedoms, and the current administration and elected officials will not silence our voices through legislative actions. Trust in my fellow disabled friends and supporters will stand by my side even if we are persecuted for advocating for our rights. Trust in my own voice to remain consistent and responsive throughout the years.Hope

Tremendous Victory for Digital Accessibility Advocates

A suspension bridge spans the logo with the acronym BVT in the middle. Beneath the bridge the words Blind Vet Tech appears. The bottom of the logo contains morse code reading TAVVI.
Disability digital accessibility advocates rejoiced on January 18, 2017, when the US Access Board Updated rules for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act. March 20, 2017 might be the effective date of the update, but compliance is delayed until January 18, 2018 for Section 508 and the Federal Communications Committee must first adopt the new Section 255 rules. The change advances accessibility of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) employed by federal and other agencies abiding by these acts. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act pertains to computers, telephonic communications methods, copier printers, websites, published software, kiosks, transaction devices, and any electronic documents. 255 of the Communications Act covers telephones, mobile and smart phones, routers, set-top boxes, computers with modems, Voice Over IP (VOIP) software, and the underlying software for these items.

The update’s chief results empower individuals with disabilities to access digital, electronic, and telecommunications services and programs under Section 508 and Section 255. This occurs through easier to understand accessibility standards crafted by industry leaders. The most important aspects include:

For Veterans with visual impairments, the accessibility of digital content and interfaces will increase within the Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicare, and Social Security. Most notably, the VA’s check-in kiosks lack sufficient accessibility options for low vision and blinded Veterans. The Section 508 Team at the VA diligently works to correct this problem; the new rules will decrease the chances for this to happen again. The WAI guidelines for web interfaces and media content will advance accessibility guidelines to usability requirements for individuals with disabilities, a chief complaint of many accessing VA websites to Social Security online forms. Finally, provisions acknowledge and usher guidelines for emerging technologies, like smart phones and mobile devices, by noting their roles in the lives of individuals with disabilities and focusing on the how we use these items in accessing digital materials. Section 4 of the overview contains a complete list of each change and outcomes.

The ICT refresh represents the first steps into a world consistent with universal design principals. While this we celebrate this long fought victory, we need to remain active in advocating for digital accessibility throughout our entire digital life. We still face an uphill climb ensuring those covered under Section 508 and Section 255 comply with these rules and guidelines. While we evaluate implementation of the ICT, we also need to continue to pressure the Depart of Justice to adopt similar requirements, like WAIG, for entities under Section 2 and Section 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, like online stores to streaming media platforms.

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How to #CripTheVote and be a Voter with a Disability

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In this Blind Vet Tech Quick Guides and Tutorials podcast, we discuss different options for voting with a disability and demonstrate how to use the Electoral Services and Software Express Vote. Your vote as a disabled voter counts the same as anyone else’s, but our fellow Americans with disabilities face voting participation barriers.

The Department of Justice describes the numerous pieces of legislation and regulations protects and encourages our participation in the voting process. These safeguards includes:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act,, through Title II, mandates all aspects of voting, from registration to sights to casting ballots, is completely accessible for everyone.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965 permits disabled individuals to select who might assist while voting, including site staff to family members.
  • Voting Accessibility for the elderly and handicapped Act of 1984 requires accessible voting locations or alternative arrangements be made available, like curb side.
  • National Voters Registration Act of 1993 requires public offices and state services serving largely individuals with disabilities a chance to register to vote.
  • Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires every voting site possess at least one accessible voting system.

Click here to learn more about #CripTheVote and where the candidates stand on disability rights.

Thank you for listening to this Blind Vet Tech tutorial on how to vote and #CriptTheVote.

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Voting Blind through Accessible Voting Machines

Editor’s Note: This article comes from Terry of New Mexico. He describes a recent visually impaired support group of his where Veterans learned how to use the accessible voting machines. It is important we each exercise our voting rights. To remain silent on November 8th is to deny your opinions related to local to national issues.

By Presidential Proclamation, President Obama declared Blind Americans Equality day in October. “Each day, blind and visually impaired Americans contribute to our society, refusing to allow anything to hold them back. In order to ensure more Americans with disabilities can continue participating fully in our country, we must each do our part to promote equal opportunity for all. On Blind Americans Equality Day, we reaffirm the inherent dignity of every human being and recommit to forging a future in which all Americans, including those with visual impairments, can pursue their full measure of happiness. More than two decades ago, one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills in our history, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was signed into law. Ever since, the ADA has helped reduce discrimination and promote equal access to classrooms, workplaces, and transportation — and it is imperative that we build on the significant progress we have made for individuals living with disabilities.”

In celebration of the strides that people with vision disabilities have made, the Rio Grande BVA low vision support group reaffirmed the belief of our full participation in society. At our meeting on October 18, The Dona Ana County board of elections provided an accessible voting machine for our veterans to have a hands-on training in voting independently. The machine is available at all voting sites in our county and provides accessibility for people with physical and visual disabilities. Everyone at our meeting was amazed at how easy the voting machine is to use. The veterans learned that they can vote without assistance. The audio menu system is easy to navigate. Voting time can be reduced by downloading the ballot for your district in advance so that you can easily skim through the actual ballot.

Crucial Audio Reading Service for Blind Kansans Received $100,000 Budget Cut

The Kansas Audio Reader Network received a $100,000 or 14% budget cut in the latest string of efforts to reduce the Kansas deficit. The service is an extremely important part of thousands of Kansans lives with a visual impairment, blindness, or print related disability. The service relies on volunteer readers to read local and national newspapers, magazines, and books over the air or through streaming mediums. The cuts will force the largely volunteer-based organization to alter services and hope donations will cover losses.

 

The importance of the Kansas Audio Reader Network stems from its role in adapting to sight loss. For Blinded Veterans combating conditions like macular degeneration, diabetes retinopathy, and glaucoma, the Kansas Audio Reader Network serves as a gateway when learning about accommodations and accessible solutions. Listening to the Kansas Audio Reader Network, the Veteran learns about the various independent living programs or feels empowered to ask their Visual Impairment Services Team Coordinator about other Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehab Services. Even those of us advance computer and technology enthusiasts still stream the Kansas Audio Reader Network.

To illustrate this example, I have been a consumer of the Kansas Audio Reader Network since learning about it while on Active Duty. As a blind US Army Captain assigned to the University of Kansas to pursue a Masters in Social Work, my Visual Impairment Services Team coordinator and fellow Social Workers informed me about the Kansas Audio Reader Network. I used it to supplement my consumption of local and national periodicals from the Kansas Talking Books. After being reassigned to Fort Leavenworth and living on post, I turned on the Kansas Audio Reader Network every morning before heading to the office. One memory that sticks out is when a Australian volunteer reader finished a section about the housing market around 2010. He included a personal commentary that sent my wife and I laughing to hysterics.

With state and federal budget reductions for services for the disabled, the Kansas Audio Reader Network represents a service we cannot let suffer. You can assist in preventing the degradation of the Kansas Audio Reader Network by reviewing the different ways to donate. Two particular methods to consider involves a direct monetary donation and participating in “For Your Ears Only.” The direct donation method is processed through the University of Kansas endowment, so its completely safe and easy to complete. “For Your Ears Only” takes your gently used audio and music equipment off your hands for resale. The items will be sold at the annual “For Your Ears Only” benefit on September 9th and 10th at the Douglas County Fair grounds. For more information, please contact the Kansas Audio Reader Network at (785) 864-4604, like them on Facebook or @KUAudioReader on Twitter

A Veterans Thanks for Veterans Day

This Veterans Day, I wish to thank all of you who contributed directly and indirectly in the lives of us Veterans. Never has so many set aside personal ideologies to support those few individuals who served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. You all displayed your support whether through donations to military and veteran service organizations, volunteering at VA medical centers, assembling care packages for those deployed, placing yellow ribbons on your cars and houses, turning on the Walmart sponsored green lights, lending a moment of your day to reflect in silence, and the countless other ways. While you might say there is no way to thank one for their service, I believe there is no way us Veterans can truly express our sincere gratitude in return. You might feel the need to thank us for serving our country, but we only serve our country because people like you give us reason to believe defending our country is worth the risk and personal sacrifices.

The remainder of this post hopes to demonstrate my sincere gratitude to those who demonstrated the values of selfless sacrifice, courage, integrity, honor, trustworthiness, and loyalty. Through these different expressed values, you impacted my life during times of growth, learning, depression, anger, sadness, happiness, transition, and transformation. I am not including the names of any individuals and group many together in an effort to give each of you your privacy.

From the day of my commissioning, to the first duty station, to waiving goodbye prior to being deployed, to answering my calls while deployed, to being there from the first days in the hospital, to being there during the darkest days of recovery, to being there and giving up personal independence to enhance my independence, to having to drastically alter life’s goals, to this very day, no individuals have sacrificed more and deserve my never ending thanks and respect than my wife, parents, brother, in-laws, uncle, aunts, and grandmother. I understand and owe you all each an apology for not expanding into greater detail on what you all being there for me truly means to me. I truly do think about what each of you have done for me on a daily basis, but as this is a public post, I do not feel comfortable going into detail.

One person who will not realize the impact she has had on my life and helps me find hope is my daughter. Due to this, I wish to one day tell her thank you for being the catalyst I am able to embrace the future.

Throughout my military career, I had the privilege and honor to learn and receive countless opportunities forging me into the officer and now Veteran I am today. This started with the cadre at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse ROTC department. Our PMS managed to look beyond the cadet with horrid grades and see something more. Our NCO’s saw us as both college students with a lot to learn and as the future officers we were to become to deal with my immaturity in a manner allowing us to become more than just adults, but leaders. Most importantly, the secretaries and staff used their countless years of experience watching cohort after cohort process through to give us the pointers in order to be successful when talking with everyone.

An aspect of military service many civilians are in awe of stems from the bonds forged. As a Veteran four years removed from Active Duty, thank you to those of you I had the honor of serving with. Its amazing to feel the bond with those I have not talked to in many years to immediately pick up a conversation from long ago to those we keep crossing paths serendipitously. In particular, each of my commanders who bestowed tremendous amounts of faith by placing me in a certain leadership position to those who felt my disability did not define my ability to serve but focused on my capabilities. Thank you to those who placed an enormous amount of trust in me as their leader, for I might not always knew what I might have been doing each of you practiced patience and instructed me on how to improve my leadership styles and communication methods.

Thank you to the doctors, nurses, physicians, pilots, medics, and many other medical professionals who handled my care and spent much of their own time explaining to my family and I about my condition and prognosis. Its your care and extra time personalizing every visit, creating rapport rapport.

Thank you to the blind rehab specialists and social workers in the Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehab Services for enabling me to explore and create my own meaning related to blindness. Thank you to the OIF/OEF/OND Case Manager at the VA for always being there and wiling to listen to my problems and opening pathways for care. Thank you to the several Army Wounded warrior advocates who informed me about the Army Wounded Warrior Education Initiative and who allow me the time to engage in a variety of conversations related to me as a case study and a fellow social worker.

A pivotal piece of my growth towards self affirmation as someone with a visual impairment who once served in the US military and now seeks new identities and meanings in life occurred at the University of Kansas. My ability to accomplish this transformation is owed to numerous individuals starting with a couple I am proud to call my friends, family, and role models, whose lessons in class and in practice continues to make an impact on my life. Thank you to my two advisors from the School of Social Welfare and Therapeutic Sciences programs. Both of you always kept an open door and mind when dealing with a sometimes frantic and sometimes absent minded student. These experiences would not even have been possible without the efforts of those who advocated for the Army Wounded Warrior Education Initiative, KU Wounded Warrior Scholarship, KU Veterans Alumni Network, and Graduate Military Programs. These individuals know first hand the importance education and opportunities for one to find new meaning in life represent the most instrumental pieces in transitioning Veteran’s life.

As iron clad bonds develop in military service, I have been fortunate to experience the same with numerous Veterans through my involvement with several organizations. Each of these individuals I view as my mentor and has helped me understand what it means to be a Veteran, to serve our fellow Veterans, how to advocate on the behalf of Veterans, and the importance disability rights is to us Veterans. Many of you I am in almost daily contact with, and others left a mark upon me after just one meeting. I wish to say thank you for bestowing your knowledge and experiences on this Veteran, for without the lessons you learned in your own paths, I would not be the person I am today. On this note, a special thanks is owed to all of the WWII Veterans, Korean War Veterans, Vietnam Veterans, Desert Storm/Shield Veterans, and all of the times of war and peace between these periods who fought to ensure my generation did not return home to the turmoil and environments lacking in transitioning services and entitlements as you did.

This final section will differ from above as I will make special mention to several organizations. Like above, this is in no particular order based on merit or value. Those organizations listed receive my full endorsement as an organization I have found to be very beneficial and deserves your attention.

The Fisher House

No other organization provided more services to our Service Members and Veterans requiring care at DoD and VA Medical Centers than the Fisher House. It is here my family stayed while I was at Walter Reid. Its here, my family and I ate our first Thanksgiving dinner two week after being injured. Its here families stay as their loved ones receive medical treatment, rehab, and other interventions.

KAMO Adventures

The first time I ever went hunting occurred after going blind thanks to KAMO Adventures. However, the impact they made does not end with a simple excursion. KAMO is an all volunteer non-profit who care more about ensuring Veterans have the resources and opportunities to succeed in their goals ranging from outdoors hobbies, educational pursuits, and employment. I owe KAMO a debt of gratitude for more than assisting me score three turkeys, but also for my scholarship enabling me to obtain much needed accommodations, services, and extra assistance.me the chance to

KU Wounded Warrior Scholarship

My history with the University of Kansas started with the forerunner of the Wounded Warrior Scholarship. After the Army canceled the Army Wounded Warrior Education Initiative, those who advocated for the partnership felt the urge to retain a program for wounded Veterans to obtain a quality education. The Wounded Warrior Scholarship birth from these ashes, funding everything from undergraduate degrees to PhDs at the University of Kansas for us disabled Veterans, our caregivers, and the surviving dependents of those who gave their lives for our country.

America’s Vet Dogs

Thanking only America’s Vet Dogs and the Guide Dog Foundation would be short sighted. While they trained Black Jack and trained me on how to use Black Jack, each service dog requires an extensive network of volunteers, donors, and advocates to produce each dog. Receiving Black Jack felt just like the first time I rode a bike independently, drove a car, and first used a white cane. The only difference is I receive this same feeling each time we harness up and head out. The gift of freedom and independence can never be repaid by a thank you, but that is the extend of a blog post.

Sentinels of Freedom

Though I never used SoF, this collection of Veterans and mentors have assisted numerous friends of mine complete their post-secondary degree programs and find employment. Its for this reason I list them, and in hopes some of you might consider helping SoF.

American Foundation for the Blind

AFB appears here for more than their educational and outreach efforts for the blind, but for what they mean for me related to my future. One of my goals involves submitting research articles to AFB for their publication consideration. The AFB is the epitome of scientific inquiry into blindness related topics, and represents my primary goal for PhD efforts.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Despite the negative coverage the VA received over recent years, the VA offers Veterans the best care and services. When we look at primary factors assisting one overcome disabilities or barriers, peer support groups impact lives more effectively than medication and therapies. The VA offers us Veterans a place to find those like ourselves. Secondly, the best blind rehab system is not found in private industry but in the VA. Blind rehab as we know it today started at the VA with a group of blinded Veterans working together with researchers, and the legacy continues today. Finally, if you are looking for a place to donate for a Veterans cause where thanks to public law 100% of all proceeds must benefit a Veteran, the VA, through volunteer services at each VA medical center ways could use your assistance.

Blinded Veterans Association
Finally, a thanks goes out to several of the members of the BVA for serving as my mentors and helping find a niche in assisting my fellow blinded Veterans. The highlight of each week for me comes from numerous opportunities and teleconferences where I know I am able to make an impact in the life of one of my peers.

Finally, to all of you, thank you for your support then, and continue support to this day.

Americans with Disabilities Act’s Impact on Veterans

July 26th, 2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The landmark legislation firmly stated that discrimination based on disabilities will no longer be tolerated, establishing guidelines and regulations for an inclusive and accessible world.

The passage and revisions to the ADA demonstrates the importance for civilians and Veterans groups to unite for a common cause. When originally proposed in the 1980s, Senator Bob Dole, a combat disabled WWII Veteran, numerous paralyzed Vietnam Veterans, and Veteran Service Organizations advocated and educated Congress and the public on the importance for comprehensive disability rights. Continuing to carry the torch, Veteran Service Organizations, like Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and the Blinded Veterans Association, unite their memberships to fight for equality for all persons with disabilities.

The multitude of disabled Veterans fuel these efforts, since our culture stipulates that I shall never leave a comrade behind. The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics states that in 2013 3,743,259 Veterans possessed a military service connected disability rating. These ratings includes minor conditions like scars and joint stiffness to sensory impairments and traumatic brain injuries. Nearly 1/3 of these Veterans, 1,139,815 Veterans, received a VA disability rating of 70% or more, indicating a severe disability.

Since September 11, 2001, over 2.5 million Service Members and Veterans supported the Global War on Terrorism. Amongst these, the Department of Defense reports over 51,000 Veterans sustained a poly trauma injury, while the Department of Veterans Affairs cites around one million Veterans claimed medical conditions related to military service.

In Vietnam, roughly 3.4 million deployed to Southeast Asia, with 303,704 injuries. Of these, over 75,000 Vietnam Veterans received a disability rating of 100% or more. Sadly, Vietnam Veterans still face the legacy of this conflict through health conditions from Agent Orange.

For disabled Veterans, our benefits and entitlements from the Department of Veterans Affairs do not create accessible and inclusive environments, it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those benefits and entitlements are just a piece of the transitioning puzzle. The ADA protects our ability to pursue our dreams, whether in higher education, employment, or simply engaging local goods and services.

How can a blinded Veteran use their GI Bill benefits, if not for the accessibility reforms ushered into institutions of higher learning by the ADA?

The GI Bill serves as a recruitment and retention tool for the military, by promising Service Members educational benefits in return for military service. It’s the ADA that ensures my admissions does not hinge upon my blindness, but motivation for a degree. It’s the ADA I can turn towards to advocate for accessible materials and web-based tools. It’s the ADA that creates disability accommodations offices ensuring I possess the necessary resources for success.

How can a blinded Veteran obtain and retain gainful employment, without the ADA?

My military experience and education enables me to entice employers with a resume riddled solid examples of leadership, ethics, and ability to problem solve. However, it’s the ADA that allows me to elect to disclose my blindness to employers, due to commonly held stigmas. It’s the ADA that states one cannot discriminate in the workplace, and reasonable accommodations must be provided. It’s the ADA that allows me to ensure transportation services meet my needs for independent travel to work or business travel throughout the country.

How can a blinded Veteran enter restaurants, stores, and other areas of public accommodations with a Service Dog, without the ADA?

The ADA, as revised in 2010, ensures that my Guide Dog and I have the right to enter a store, take a Uber taxi, and enjoy a restaurant, without fear of ejection. The Americans with Disabilities Act even influenced legislation enabling Veterans to bring Service Animals into VA facilities. In 2010, the ADA and Department of Justice updated Service Animal definitions and access policies. While the VA resides outside the jurisdiction of the ADA, Service Animal advocates inserted language into the 2012, Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Act, that expanded the protections for Veterans to use their Service Dogs inside VA facilities.

In conclusion, when we became a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine, we took an oath to defend every American’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, we did not realize that a disability pitted us in a never-ending war against our fellow Americans just to enjoy our basic freedoms. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, we disabled Veterans possess the battle plans and allies to cast down stereotypes related to disabilities and prove we are of value to society as peers.

This is an excerpt from remarks of mine during a panel presentation on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information about the ADA’s impact on disabled Veterans, refer to the below links.

Americans with Disabilities Act Leader, Bob Dole

On July 26th the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrates is 25th anniversary. Those of us with disabilities owe Senator Bob Dole a tremendous amount of gratitude for his lifelong commitment in removing barriers and discriminatory acts related to disablement. His passion for disability rights and benefits stem in large part from his own experiences living with disabilities.

While fighting German forces in Italy during April, 1942, Lieutenant Dole, assigned to the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, received severe injuries from German machine gun fire. Several bullets pierced the young officer’s arm and chest, leaving his fellow Soldiers to question if he might even survive to the hostile. Lieutenant Dole’s iron will enabled him not only to survive the injury, but even secondary infections. This ordeal left his right arm severely impaired. During his recovery, he learned the invaluable lesson that a disability does not stop life, rather its just another aspect of it. From this belief, Senator Dole poured his own spirit and experiences into advocating for numerous disability causes, the Americans with Disabilities At, its revisions, and the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled Veterans have received the necessary protections to pursue the very freedoms their services and sacrifices should have entitled them too in the first place. No longer must a Veteran settle for selling pencils or posies, working in shelters making brooms, or other remedial jobs earlier generations of disabled Veterans faced when returning home. Today, the ADA protects a Veteran’s ability to pursue higher education, employment, and the American dream on our own terms.

For more information on Senator Bob Dole’s activities related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the University of Kansas’ archive of his speeches, writings, and other publications by clicking here.

Breaking Free of the Wounded Warrior Tag

For Service Members and Veterans injured since 9/11, popular western culture tagged this cohort as a “Wounded Warrior.” This title has since been molded into individual identities to names of numerous “non-profit” corporations. Even the Army renamed the previous Medical Hold companies, that provided services and a place for Soldier to recover while separating, the Army Wounded Warrior program. In this post, I am going to dissect the “wounded warrior” tag and evaluate its roles.

The term, “wounded warrior,” consists of two words, a noun with a descriptor, “wounded” being the type of “warrior.” The most applicable definition for wounded in the Webster Dictionary is, “”: injured, hurt by, or suffering from a wound.” In this context, wounded is an adjective to describe the next work, warrior. Webster defines warrior as, “: a man engaged or experienced in warfare; broadly : a person engaged in some struggle or conflict.” 

From these two definitions we can tease part several different definitions for “wounded warrior,” including:

  • A person who engaged in warfare who is suffering from a wound
  • A person in conflict after being injure by a wound
  • A person hurt by warfare or a conflict
  • A person struggling with an injury

None of these simple examples dictate a precise time or place for when an injury might have occurred or what type of conflict is required to be engaged with. For example, a person can be struggling with themselves after sustaining a disability. Likewise, sexual assault is a type of conflict that creates injuries and hurt at numerous psychological to physiological levels. Based on this summary, calling a person a “wounded warrior,” who was injured during military service, makes logical sense, until we apply the popular culture beliefs.

To best explain the popular culture definition of “wounded warrior,” conduct a search in any search engine for the term “Wounded Warrior.” On the first page of Google results, I received one ad for the Wounded Warrior Project, ten search results linking to the Wounded Warrior Project website or media discussing that organization. On the second page, two ads appeared, one for the Wounded Warrior Project and one for one of the best and morally responsible organizations, the USO. For search results, the top one linked me to the University of Kansas Wounded Warrior Scholarship, which I support and receive, several other nonprofits with the term wounded warrior in their name, and more links for the Wounded Warrior Project. Keep in mind that these results are skewed by my common searches and visited links through my Google account. To provide a different series of results, I also searched Google Scholar for the term. Interestingly enough, results focused on a wider range of research articles, like results of Wounded Knee, other Native American research of a historical lens, care for returning US military Service Members, and a case study of the Army Wounded Warrior program from 2009.

At this point, it plausible to guess that a person unfamiliar with the entire history and context of the term “wounded warrior” might formulate a perception that a wounded warrior is a person injured while serving in the US military and most likely receives services from the Wounded Warrior Project. Furthermore, this “Wounded Warrior” most likely is in their mid 20’s with a combat injury impacting their mobility, cognitive functioning, Post Traumatic or Stress, requires many services to remain independent, and focuses on sports and recreational activities for rehabilitative outlets.

This in large part is not a negative belief to develop from this little experiment, since many of these actions and statuses has positively impacted numerous Service Members and Veterans. Rather, the negative consequence arises when stereotyping occurs. To elaborate on this, reflect on the applicability for imposing the term “wounded warrior” on these examples:

  • What do we call a Vietnam Veteran who sustained a combat injury and/or dealing with the multiple chronic diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure?
  • What do we call a Soldier who stormed the beaches of Normandy and might be struggling with numerous physical conditions related to military service to age related onset?
  • What do we call a Marine injured in Desert Storm or is battling with chemical exposure related conditions from this time period?
  • What do you call a person who never deployed or served in peacetime, but lost limb in a training accident?
  • what point does a Wounded Warrior just become a disabled Veteran like these other examples?

Its from these examples that the term “wounded Warrior” begins to become detrimental, for it separates the current generation of warfighter from these past generations. Furthermore, this term has been used to horde a multitude of funds and resources from public to private donors and entities for services and research for the demographic called “Wounded Warriors,” with varying levels of transferability and generalizability to the greater population of humans. However, these assumption only blankets the term “wounded warrior” when applied in a greater population based context. The term also has meaning at an individual level.

From the personal identity aspect, this Huffington Post article summarizes my beliefs nicely. The term “wounded warrior” should have a shelf life. It is most beneficial for those recently injured or undergoing the transformative process whereby one integrates their new state of being into their normative self. This process cannot contain any time limits, for we each process through the various recovery models, treatment plans, and personal acceptance frameworks at different rates, where relapse is very plausible. So yes, the term “wounded warrior” at a personal level might be valuable, its solely based on the individual, but I still suggest one focuses on devising their own meanings and identities useful for their recovery process.

Healing does occur, and lifelong struggles can be redefined. People living with chronic pain face an ongoing battle, but healing is possible. This starts with accepting the chronic pain is normal and moving towards understanding and redefining pain and personal limits.

With my own story around blindness, it might have taken years to accept the loss, but acknowledging it and working with it tremendously impacted my wellbeing. The tag “wounded warrior” greatly appealed to me at one point in my life, for it represented a sexy title that showered me with applause and well wishes, but this only provided relief at a superficial level. Attending recreational events for Wounded Warriors allowed me to temporarily mask or hide my internal pain and struggles, but then you return home to your real life. Around 2008 I realized this, and started searching for a deeper sense of self and stronger identity that included my disability as a normal part of life. Once formulated, I sought opportunities assist others in this process, accepting myself as a disabled individual and not a “wounded warrior.”. 

To place this in a theoretical construct, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs creates a valid method to describe this process. The seven needs include:

  • Biological needs: food, shelter, water, sex, warmth, etc…
  • Safety needs: protection, order, stability, and escape from fear
  • Love and belonging: association with a group, relationships, social networks, friends and family, etc…
  • Esteem needs: sense of mastery, accomplishment, independence, respect
  • Cognitive needs: knowledge, meaning, belief development
  • Ascetic needs: appreciation and search for beauty and balance
  • Self actualization needs: altruistic feelings, self fulfillment, beliefs
  • Transcendence needs: aiding others in the pursuit of their needs

Each of these steps builds off each other, and outside the first two steps, are more perceptual based rather than materialistic. When transposing this model on the recovery for Wounded Warriors, the identity of “wounded warrior” ceases to be important above the belonging phase. Esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self actualization, and transcendence needs each revolve around ones internal learning and abilities to accept themselves for who they are, and rise above simple tags. We still might operate services and programs that capitalize on tag lines, like “wounded warrior,” but on a personal level this bares no difference than our social security number or middle name.

Choices that Determines Health: Reflections after Listening to the Coverage of Chris Borland’s Retirement from the NFL

The March 18th episode of All Access from the Chicago Bears Radio Network focused on the decision of Chris Borland to retire from the NFL. Chris Borland put together an impressive rookie season that left many anticipating a very bright future as a Linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. However, he made the decision to retire at the age of 24, due to desires to mitigate any potential lifelong disabilities or chronic health conditions many former NFL players current live with, like traumatic brain injuries or musculoskeletal deteriorations. This revelation shocked the world, with news coverage from local medial outlets to the BBC reporting on it. The All Access show’s hosts, Zack, sports reporter; Tom Miller, former Chicago Bears Quarterback; and Tom Thayer, former Chicago Bears Offensive lineman, weighed in with their thoughts.

Zack’s comments appear to be neutral, taking the position of an outsider looking in, therefore lacking personal experiences with such decisions. Tom Miller conveyed thoughts that supported the rookie’s decision, but also acknowledging that these tough choices also occurs in other professionals like law enforcement and first responders. Tom Thayer’s statements possessed a slight defensive attitude towards the news coverage, highlighting his own story about knowing of certain risks but mitigating them with his goals to play within the NFL.

Throughout this segment, three questions kept crossing my mind. These include:

The Clay Hunt Act Review Related to Universities

In an effort to address the suicide rate amongst Veterans, the Clay Hunt Act (SAV) was signed into law last week. The main tenants of the Act involves requiring the Secretary of the VA to increase assessments and evaluations of mental health and suicide prevention programs, hire or forgive college loans for psychiatric professionals, devise a suicide prevention website and outreach program focusing on suicide prevention and resources, development of a peer support pilot program, and force VA’s VISN to partner with community mental health and nonprofits. These last two items, which appear as Section 5 and Section 6 in the law are of particular interest for Universities with Veteran Resource Centers and Student Veterans of America chapters, community mental health services, and those Veteran nonprofits that provide efficacious suicide prevention programs.

This post focuses on the theme of implementing the Clay Hunt Act within Universities with student Veterans due to personal interests and the number of my peers enrolled in higher education. We differ from the standard college student in many ways, like age, lived experiences, combat experiences, co-morbid conditions, and the fact that many of us have families. These items increases our risk factors, so that roughly one in six student Veterans contemplated suicide and/or self harm.

Related to the Clay Hunt Act, §5(c)(2)(C) requires that the peer support pilot program’s VISN outreach managers partners with community based entities, and locations where large populations of Veterans or community based services might be located. With a large number of Veterans returning to school in hopes of creating new futures, the Act specifically mentions Universities. Additionally, the paragraph mentions legal services and businesses. This will be of interest for Universities with Veteran legal services, States/counties with Veteran courts, and business programs looking to fund Veteran activities.

In Section 6, the Act only describes relationships between community mental services and VA medical centers. Reading between the lines, this once again targets Universities with Veteran Resource Centers. Most on campus counseling services possess limited resources and professionals to provide students who possess chronic mental health diagnosis (like PTSD), or exhibiting signs of a moderate to severe symptom onset (like a depressive episode). In these cases, the student is quickly ushered to a community mental health provider, Emergency Department, or VA medical center. The best method of the VA to carry out this Section is to coordinate with Veteran Resource Centers on campus to learn about how their student Veterans receive services and even potentially creating an outpatient counseling program with a VA provider.

For the precise verbiage for Sections 5 and 6, here is how they appear in the finalize Act:

SEC. 5. PILOT PROGRAM ON COMMUNITY OUTREACH.
(a) In General- The Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall establish a pilot program to assist veterans transitioning from serving on active duty and to improve the access of veterans to mental health services.
(b) Locations- The Secretary shall carry out the pilot program under subsection (a) at not less than five Veterans Integrated Service Networks that have a large population of veterans who–
(1) served in the reserve components of the Armed Forces; or
(2) are transitioning into communities with an established population of veterans after having recently separated from the Armed Forces.
(c) Functions- The pilot program at each Veterans Integrated Service Network described in subsection (b) shall include the following:
(1) A community oriented veteran peer support network, carried out in partnership with an appropriate entity with experience in peer support programs, that–
(A) establishes peer support training guidelines;
(B) develops a network of veteran peer support counselors to meet the demands of the communities in the Veterans Integrated Service Network;
(C) conducts training of veteran peer support counselors;
(D) with respect to one medical center selected by the Secretary in each such Veterans Integrated Service Network, has–
(i) a designated peer support specialist who acts as a liaison to the community oriented veteran peer network; and
(ii) a certified mental health professional designated as the community oriented veteran peer network mentor; and
(E) is readily available to veterans, including pursuant to the Veterans Integrated Service Network cooperating and working with State and local governments and appropriate entities.
(2) A community outreach team for each medical center selected by the Secretary pursuant to paragraph (1)(D) that–
(A) assists veterans transitioning into communities;
(B) establishes a veteran transition advisory group to facilitate outreach activities;
(C) includes the participation of appropriate community organizations, State and local governments, colleges and universities, chambers of commerce and other local business organizations, and organizations that provide legal aid or advice; and
(D) coordinates with the Veterans Integrated Service Network regarding the Veterans Integrated Service Network carrying out an annual mental health summit to assess the status of veteran mental health care in the community and to develop new or innovative means to provide mental health services to veterans.
(d) Reports-
(1) INITIAL REPORT- Not later than 18 months after the date on which the pilot program under subsection (a) commences, the Secretary shall submit to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the House of Representatives a report on the pilot program. With respect to each Veterans Integrated Service Network described in subsection (b), the report shall include–
(A) a full description of the peer support model implemented under the pilot program, participation data, and data pertaining to past and current mental health related hospitalizations and fatalities;
(B) recommendations on implementing peer support networks throughout the Department;
(C) whether the mental health resources made available under the pilot program for members of the reserve components of the Armed Forces is effective; and
(D) a full description of the activities and effectiveness of community outreach coordinating teams under the pilot program, including partnerships that have been established with appropriate entities.
(2) FINAL REPORT- Not later than 90 days before the date on which the pilot program terminates under subsection (e), the Secretary shall submit to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the House of Representatives an update to the report submitted under paragraph (1).
(e) Construction- This section may not be construed to authorize the Secretary to hire additional employees of the Department to carry out the pilot program under subsection (a).
(f) Termination- The authority of the Secretary to carry out the pilot program under subsection (a) shall terminate on the date that is 3 years after the date on which the pilot program commences.
SEC. 6. COLLABORATION ON SUICIDE PREVENTION EFFORTS BETWEEN DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS AND NON-PROFIT MENTAL HEALTH ORGANIZATIONS.
(a) Collaboration- The Secretary of Veterans Affairs may collaborate with non-profit mental health organizations to prevent suicide among veterans as follows:
(1) To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts carried out by the Secretary and non-profit mental health organizations.
(2) To assist non-profit mental health organizations with the suicide prevention efforts of such organizations through the use of the expertise of employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
(3) To jointly carry out suicide prevention efforts.
(b) Exchange of Resources- In carrying out any collaboration under subsection (a), the Secretary and any non-profit mental health organization with which the Secretary is collaborating under such subsection shall exchange training sessions and best practices to help with the suicide prevention efforts of the Department and such organization.
(c) Director of Suicide Prevention Coordination- The Secretary shall select within the Department a Director of Suicide Prevention Coordination to undertake any collaboration with non-profit mental health organizations under this section or any other provision of law.

Bad Start to the School Semester

These last two weeks stretched my patience to the limits. The cause stems from hassles with accessible digital learning mediums employed with my classes at the University of Kansas. The main culprit once again is Blackboard.

The landscape for this semester includes two online courses and two classroom based seminars. All of them heavily rely on Blackboard to exchange information. In addition, one class connects via Adobe Connect. All of these methods for conveying information over a digital interface meets basic accessibility standards, as tested through Freedom Scientific’s JAWS. Well, that leaves me in a slight pinch, as I rely on Mac OS 10.10 with Voice over and Safari or the iOS variants through Voice Over.

My previous blog post, “Why Education is Important yet Difficult for a Disabled Individual,” summarized the initial barriers and stressors one faces upon entering the halls of academia. Within this post, I critiqued the User Interface for the Blackboard site, based on personal experiences as a Mac user. Since this post, Mac released OS 10.10 Yosemite and iOS 8. In both of these updates, accessing Blackboard took a step backwards. On one hand, one can point the finger at Apple for the changes, on the other hand, Blackboard has done nothing to update their products, which leaves folks like me stuck in the middle.

Diving into accessibility barriers thus far faced this semester, here is a quick list:

Based on this summary, the barriers for me to engage with digital interfaces through my equipment definitely fails to live up to accessibility standards outlined in Section 508, W3C, IAAP, and other widely accepted standards and regulations. I am not saying this with the mindset that I cannot implement workarounds, rather, that more must be done by these companies to push accessibility for all systems. For example, I installed VM Fusion ignored to run Windows 8.1 and NVDA, Window Eyes, and System Access Mobile Network (SAMNet). Each of these offers a slightly different experience to approach Blackboard and other online learning mediums. Secondly, I have informed my instructors and professors about the difficulties I have faced, and agreed to appropriate accommodations. Next, I have sent a clear and concise message to Blackboard and Adobe on the above issues. Finally, I have attempted to reach across my network and online communities to obtain feedback from others.

The True Heroes of Veterans Day, Our Families

This Veterans Day, many people forget to honor the true heroes, our spouses, children, parents, brothers, sisters, extended family, friends, and so many other blood and non-blood relations that help us through life. These are the individuals that demonstrate one of the most valiant of the military values, selfless sacrifice. To illustrate this point, look at all of the Parades and events occurring today, and find one that solely honors the family and support systems. Generally, the numerous Veterans Day activities mention the families and support systems in passing, but they deserve so much more.

If you do not know what the military and Veteran family sacrifices, here are a few examples:

It is our families and support systems that cried as we took our oaths as we entered the military.

It is our children, spouses, parents, friends, and so many others that had to sever their connections to their friends and support systems every time the orders came down to move.

It is our children that had to explain to their friends why their mother and father could not attend parents day at school or could not support them at the numerous sporting games and events.

It is our families and support systems that created the care package groups that provided home comforts throughout each deployment.

It is our families and support systems that fear every phone call or passing car while we are deployed, not knowing if or when the barer of bad news comes.

It is our families that receive the traumatic call that their loved one sustained an injury in combat and must quickly grieve and head off to the hospital as we lay there helpless to comfort them.

It is our families and support systems that stood vigilant at our bed sides and throughout rehabilitation after being injured.

It is our families and support systems that dropped everything and rushed to our aid whenever we needed help.

It is our spouses, children, parents, and others that will remain at our sides caring for us as we developed lifelong chronic disabilities.

It will always be our daughters, sons, spouses, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends, and so many more that will be there when we hang up our uniforms and leave the military.

It is our next of kin that receives knock at the door from a military Chaplain and the Casualty Assistance Officer dressed in their uniforms, where they do not need to speak a word to convey their message.

It is our loved ones that receive a folded flag as the only memento after we died. So today as you find yourself thanking every Veteran, look next to them and honor that family around them. Do not overlook the family or cast them aside, but hear their stories, triumphs, sacrifices, and courage beyond measure.

This is for my Wife, Cate, who took the call that dropped her to her knees, and who has spent much of the last 10 years ensuring all of my needs were taking care of, driving me to numerous events, and standing by as I had good days and really bad ones.

For my Parents, Linda and Tom, who dropped everything going on in their life to rush off to Walter Reid, and started pulling together the necessary resources and services that led to my full recovery, and who to this day continue this process.

For my Uncle David, who also dropped everything in his life to be at my side at Walter Reid while my wife and parents attempted to understand the situation.

For my brother and sister-in-law, LTC TJ and Gen, who helped my wife prepare our house upon my release from the hospital and consoling our parents.

For my Grandmother, who at 92 years old, makes me laugh.

For the numerous others who have spent so much of their own time to guide me through recovery.

Most importantly, for my daughter, Abby, who provides me with the ability to focus on the present moment while creating a future that is bright.

FamilyOfaVet.com

– See more at: http://www.familyofavet.com/#sthash.D29NGd9U.dpuf

Recounting 10 Years Since Being Shot and Blinded in Iraq

This Veterans Day, November 11th, marks a rather special anniversary for me. On this day ten years ago, life decided to emplace a situation impossible to truly plan for. The events of that Veterans Day and the ten subsequent ones enabled me to fully understand why we choose to honor those who protect our freedoms.

So what cataclysmic event interrupted my life on November 11, 2004? Simply stated, an injury that changed my perception of the world.

Around 1630, my unit started to prepare to end another day patrolling the streets between the Baghdad International Airport and the International Zone. We received an alert to provide security support to the Iraqi National Guard, as they infiltrate a mosque. This meant that our mission involved locking down the external perimeter.

As a mixed patrol of up armored HMMWV’s and Bradley’s, the unit deployed itself in a staggered pattern with enough separation to maintain visual contact around the rather large block.

Shortly after arriving and establishing the perimeter, a sniper shot a dismounted Soldier in the chest. That Bradley team jumped into action, saving his life and evacuating him to the Combat Support Hospital (CSH). This marked the second casualty on the day for us, having lost one Bradley earlier due to an IED. To cover down on the position, I elected to employ my Bradley into that position.

Within an hour, the sniper scored another hit. This time, the bullet penetrated my left temple and exited through the right eye. Though the Bradley’s commander sits in the turret, I opted to expose my head in an effort to locate the shooter through a pair of binoculars. The necessity stems from some troubles we experienced with the optical system due to the sand in the region.

A 7.62mm bullet packs a punch similar to a sledge hammer. Miraculously though, this bullet failed to kill me or knock me unconscious. To this day, I can easily recall that fraction of a second before losing my sight as my Wiley-X’s started to leave my head, and my gunner reporting that I was a heap on the floor.

Two notes might be made here about the importance of training and subconscious fears. The first involves how ingrain some training really is. Shortly after I realized the gravity of the situation slumped over at the bottom of the turret, I started to feel my head to triage the damage. The training to do this stems from both the military and a couple of years worth of nursing classes. The second note about fears stems from a question of mine upon reading the CSH. As the nurses prepared me for surgery, I asked why I felt really cold. To me, this question makes sense as the media generally portrays the recently injured dying person as saying they are cold. The medical staff simply replied that I was completely naked. This made sense, but what else is there to say to people beginning to wipe you down and insert IV’s all over the place.

Ten years later, I look back at this single moment and reflect how it dramatically changed my life. No one enters into the military or even life with plans to cope and overcome these situations. Rather, these are the moments that define us and forces one to reevaluate everything. Success in these situations can only be defined by the individual living it.

We, who experienced these events, are not victims of war or circumstances, but are individuals placed in extraordinary situations. Recovering requires healing physically, psychologically, socially, and most importantly spiritually. While a start time may exist, no end point, outside of death, exists.

Over the last several years, many individuals attempted to develop training, pre/post deployment assessments, and numerous other modules, seminars, and the like. Truthfully, no amount of counseling or resiliency training ever fully prepares everyone to rebound from such traumatic losses. Every person brings a different set of beliefs, supports, and capabilities that may contribute or setback recovery, yet many still ask for that silver bullet that miraculously creates a “cure.” If you are a service provider looking for information on these topics, ask us who live it.

Looking through the last decade, four situations created a very beneficial response in my recovery. These range from accepting assistance, failing to meet a goal, pursuing education, and surrounding myself with an effective support team.

The first incident stems from my wife and parents asking for resources. They immediately started searching the moment they reached Walter Reid, and never stopped. They discovered the VA’s blind rehab program, which is open to all military and Veterans with a severe visual impairments. This enabled me to do the one thing I needed to do, rest and heal. As I stabilized and started working again, their relentless efforts uncovered many other opportunities I did not see or would even dream of looking towards.

The second fulfilled a desire to return to my unit. After witnessing my capabilities with blindness, the Commander retained me on Active Duty around August 2005. Realizing I will not deploy again, I requested a transfer into Acquisitions, enabling me to help evaluate the equipment being sent down range. My motive to remain in the Army revolved around my identity to continue progressing up the Officer ranks. Accomplishing this required me to pass as a normal Soldier, binding my blindness from all. This resulted in many bouts with depression and anger at myself as I literally stumbled and ran into things, or feelings of jealousy with every friend or relative who received a promotion or deployed. During this time, my anxieties skyrocketed, marriage nearly collapsed, trouble with sleeping, and numerous other items mirroring PTSD. Truth of the situation is that by retaining the identity as an Army Officer, I neglected my new identity as a blinded individual who needed a new path in life.

In 2008, a third opportunity arose. The Army devised a program enabling injured Soldier to receive a Masters from the University of Kansas. I immediately jumped on this initiative, graduating in 2010 with a Masters in Social Work. The educational opportunities enabled me to examine myself truthfully without any judgement. Prior to this, I only seen myself as a broke Soldier with limited possibilities in the Army. With the new knowledge, I recognized this self defeating view, and started to see a much broader world.

The last and most impactful of the assistance received stems from increasing the size of my family. The birth of my daughter transformed my priorities from selfish professional pursuits to being there for her. Secondly, two of my mentors and professors would adopt us, dramatically shifting our perspectives. Each of these individuals fill a gap in my life I did not know of. My wife and family bent over backwards to ensure my chances to thrive, but through these new additions, all of our lives forever positively changed.

Today, I can tell you the following.

  • Blindness sucks, but I fully embrace it and love myself for living with it.
  • I miss driving classic Chevy muscle cars, but enjoy playing with my daughter in the backseat much more.
  • I miss playing paintball and numerous video games, but now utilize this time to read and expand my intellect.
  • I miss wearing the uniform and leading Soldiers in combat, but I enjoy serving my fellow Veterans through their transition processes.

10 Years of Blindness and 10 Things I Have Enjoyed

On November 11th, I celebrate 10 years living with a visual impairment. To honor this moment, I will post several entries over the next couple of days. To start this off, here are ten things that I have fully embraced thanks to going blind.

10. Meeting New People

Being blind has introduced an array of new people in my life. These range from long term friends to colleagues to all those who I am lucky to share a moment with.

9. The Accessible World

I really wished that Text to Speech entered into my life sooner, along with the iPhone and tablets. My productivity dramatically increased exponentially, while reading has never been more enjoyable.

8. Disability Rights and Independent Living

I never understood what these movements and lifestyles meant. Living as a disabled person enabled me to appreciate and enable others to overcome barriers associated with an un-inclusive society.

7. Public Speaking and Presenting

Like many, public speaking scared me. However, this changes when you actually have something meaningful to say. We have the right to the freedom of speech, but you must earn the right to be heard.

6. Charting a New Life

Path The military provides a fairly easy to negotiate career path thanks to regulations. Blindness provided a chance to see beyond this myopic view of life, and venture into the greater unknown.

5. Identity of Disability Pride

Accepting blindness as a part of me did not happen overnight, but rather over years. Once I realized that being blind or disabled is natural and should be displayed opened the door for me to truly recover from my injuries.

4. Learning to Request and Accept Assistance

Being an Army Officer to me meant that I had to figure things out on my own, while never showing weakness. Being blind automatically allows most of society to view me as being vulnerable. In the middle of these two extremes resides a happy medium where I can navigate between offers for guidance or storm my way through a situation. Understand that being able to choose when to accept aid is the best example of self-determination.

3. Intimacy

This definition has many aspects. In the simplest form, my ability to communicate in a manner that reaches beyond the surface and with ones internal energies is far easier. On the other hand, my wife and I have experienced our most stable and satisfying emotional and physical (aka sexual) life thus far. This all stems from learning how to effectively communicate needs, wants, and desires a nonjudgmental and open manner.

2. Growing the Family

This includes the birth of my daughter to my mentors. Through all of these individuals, I have learned so much more about how to live a richer and real life.

1. Living

This might seem cliche, but it is very true. To explain this the best, check out Tim McGraw’s, “Live Like You Were Dying.”

Visual Impairments by Major War Era

With today being White Cane day, the following blog will describe how visual impairments impacts the lives of those who served. This only focuses on those who served during the most recent conflicts, Vietnam, and WWII and Korea. Those who served in other time periods was left off due to time constraints.
The Blinded Veterans Association reports from Department of Veterans Affairs statistics that over 158,000 visually impaired Veterans live amongst us. The rate these increase each year is around 7,000 Veterans.

Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn:
From the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Alliance on Eye and Vision Research reports that over 197,555 combat injuries impacted the optical system. Amongst those with a Traumatic Brain Injury, over 36,000 have presented in poly-trauma clinics with short to long term functional visual impairments. All of these differing conditions are directly related to penetrating or concussive/blast injuries from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), shrapnel, gunshot wounds, and environmental incidents. There are still many more unreported cases of these recent Veterans with functional sight impairments that range from issues with glare, headaches, blind spots, reading difficulties, and numerous other conditions.
http://www.visionaware.org/section.aspx?FolderID=8&SectionID=115&TopicID=538

Vietnam Era Veterans
The fastest growing segment of Veterans developing visual impairments includes those who served either in Southeast Asia or during that era. With research showing high correlations between Agent Orange and many troubling health conditions, more than direct physical injuries to the optical systems can receive service connection for sight loss. Most notably are those secondary impacts from Diabetes related to Agent Orange exposure. Alternatively, many of our Vietnam Era Veterans continue to reach the age when various age related conditions arise like macular degeneration. For these individuals, there is no reason why with proper resources they should discontinue any of those activities they most enjoy.

World War II and Korean War Veterans:
For those Veterans who served during these eras, a combination of service related and age related conditions take a heavy toll on sight impairments and independent living. Both of these generations reached the ages when Age Related Macular Degeneration increases exponentially. In many cases, a co-occurring hearing impairment adds to their limitations.  .

Department of Veterans Affairs Services
One should not give up hope, as the VA offers an array of Blind Rehabilitation Services that can occur anywhere from home based interventions to extended training within the Blind Rehab Centers.

Proof Small Ideas Grow

During the 69th National Convention of the Blinded Veterans Association, a rather miraculous event occurred. Proving the motto, “Blind Veterans helping Blind Veterans,” the Technology Association for Veterans with Visual Impairments (TAVVI) conducted an iOS training session. Nearly 70 participants attended, receiving one on one or small group instructions on the iOS platform from their fellow blinded Veterans.

In the past, the closest thing to this involved a blind Veteran discussing their experiences and advice with technology or services. The TAVVI coordinated, developed or compiled the materials, recruited trainers, and executed a program on par with a Blind Rehabilitation program.  This action stands out as special, since it demonstrates the capabilities a small group of non-expert peers may accomplish.

The idea for this event started just like the TAVVI did, with a couple of blind Veterans talking. The TAVVI started out after a conversation acknowledging multiple barriers for blinded Veterans to succeed with technology. The concept for the iOS training stemmed from a thought that peer support provides equally effective training as a formalized program. Pulling together our resources and knowledge, we managed to deliver.

The TAVVI is actually a working group attached to the BVA. Officially recognized by the BVA during its mid year board meeting in 2014, its the brain child of several individuals, collaborating over a several year stretch. For more information click here.

Basic Concepts about Blindness a Diagnosis

Basic Concepts on Blindness and Diagnosing Visual Impairments

The first sign a person begins to realize that they might be going blind comes from an Optometrist or Ophthalmologist. The usual statement is, “I am sorry, but there is nothing more we can do.” When delivered this way, a person feels lost or depressed. However, this is not the case, as it only represents a new beginning.   We will look at several of the general terms that describes sight loss. On a continuum they include blind (no light perception), blind (light perception), legally blind, low vision, and functional blindness.   The easiest term to describe is blindness with no light perception. Probably the best way to describe this is not to stand in a dark place or cover your eyes, but rather think about what you can see directly behind you. Now, do not turn your head, but use your eyes to see directly behind you. That utter sense of darkness where only your other senses describes what is behind you is the closest to no light perception a sighted individual may see. Even if you closed your eyes and stood with a blind fold in utter darkness, your eyes still try to perceive some form of imagery. This represents a significant level of blindness with some residual perception.   Blindness with only light perception has several different forms. However, people often only see light with shadows or shadows with some light. The way one sees in this state depends on the condition of the eye and the cause for the sight loss. IN my case, I would say look through a camera at a light source  with no lens that is very dirty. You can detect the light source, and if anything might be blocking it.   Legal Blindness refers to a term develop to determine cut offs for benefits for sight loss. Legally, it refers to a visual acuity on a Snellen chart of 20/200 corrected with best eye. This means that the size of a sign a normally sighted person sees at 200 feet, a legally blind individual must be 20 feet away. A second classification for legal blindness involves tunnel vision. In this case, a person must have a field of view less than 20 degrees while looking forwards. Basically, look through a paper towel tube. However, even at these levels, one still possesses a fair amount of usable sight, and should be encouraged to use as much of it as possible.    Low Vision is a unique term. This generally hits many individuals with the beginning signs of Macular Degeneration and a host of other conditions. Basically, the visual acuity measures 20/70 or worse in best corrected eye on the Snellen chart. However, I like to look at it in a different manner. This level means that an individual must relinquish their driving privileges in most states, struggle with reading normal printed materials (12 font), and has some difficulties following fine video details on the TV, like a football or basketball in motion. While the Americans with Disabilities Act ensures these individuals receive the same treatment as all other persons with a disability, very few benefits exist. Similarly, the majority of organizations serving the legally blind deny this population access to membership and direct services. However, one may experience the same changes in quality of life, resources (like employment), and barriers like a legally blinded individual.

New to the field of sight loss is the category of functional blindness. This term still has a long way to go before being accepted universally by organizations, providers, insurance companies, and the like, this condition is very real to those who have it. Basically, these individuals possess the sight to pass the standard array of charts, but yet they still struggle to read, tract fine visual detail, struggle in extremely bright or dark settings, and host of other conditions. Causes of functional blindness includes traumatic brain injuries, chemical exposure, strokes, nerve damage, and many other events. In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the TBI’s sustained opened the doors to learning about such a sight loss. However, this still stands as an emergent field of study, with each passing day bringing forward more information on causes, depth, and treatments.   In terms of the VA, the below chart will help identify the varying levels of sight loss one might receive benefits to service connected disability ratings for. . These are listed within the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 38:

First Level of Compensation

  • Light perception or worse in one eye, with legal blindness in other

  Second Level of Compensation

  • 5/200 or less in both eyes
  • Fields of 5 degree or less with both eyes

Third Level of Compensation

  • 5/200 in one eye and light perception or worse in other

Fourth Level of Compensation

  • Light perception only in both eyes
  • 5/200 and factual need for aid and attendance
  • 5/200 and no light perception or worse in other

Fifth Level of Compensation

  • Light perception in one eye and loss of one eye

Highest Level of Compensation

  • Total blindness, with no light perception in both eyes
  • loss of both eyes   .
  • If you know that your claims packet was approved at a different level than your current level, ask your eye doctor to annotate it on your VA electronic medical records.

    When receiving an eye exam, it is always wise to ask for an eye exam to determine legal benefits. While many eye exams attempts to obtain information about your best acuity and fields to determine a diagnosis, they often use devices like pin hole tests, inverted contrast charts, encourage straining, and other methods. An exam for legal benefits uses the basic Snellen eye chart, normal corrective lenses, discourages strain, basic glare reduction tactics (like tinted glasses and a hat), and other practices a person may preform outside a clinical setting. The eye exam for legal benefits attempt to measures the individual’s sight as if they are in their natural environment.

    We All Served

    In a recent function honoring Veterans, I once again encountered the stereotypical responses various war injuries creates. For those not aware of this, physical injuries like amputations and visible scars from shrapnel and burns attract more attention then ones like psychological or sensory loss.

     
    During this venue, civilians and Veterans alike drew towards a very dear friend of mine who sustained an amputation. I stood immediately next to him the entire time, with the white cane displayed. We both wore name tags indicating branch of service, name, and rank. Many individuals shook his remaining hand and thank him for his service, while ignoring me. To add insult to injury, one individual even asked if I were a Veteran after talking with my friend.
     
    I do not blame these well wishers on their ignorance, rather the methods they became classically conditioned to respond in this manner. I wish for you to answer the following questions to yourselves:
     
    • In the last commercial, news article, article, or other syndication featuring a disabled Veteran, what type of injury captivated your interest?
    • During this same story, what generation of Veteran was explicitly announced or eluded to?
    • Which organization sponsored the advertisement or was mentioned in the article?
     
    As an individual who interacts with all Veterans, regardless of generation or disabilities, these stereotypes generates feelings of exclusion in many. This conclusion arose when talking with Vietnam Era Veterans about how they feel with so many services from non-profits to the VA focuses solely on newer generations of Veterans. Similarly, Veterans of the current conflicts stated experiences like mine from above.
     
    To highlight this point, the following two stories demonstrates that my experiences from above occur to others.
     
    While at a rally to honor the fallen heroes from service in the Middle East, a reporter noticed a female Veteran in a wheelchair wearing a Marine shirt. Honing in like a vulture, she immediately started to ask the Marine about her service. When the reporter discovered that the paralysis occurred stateside, the reporter immediately ended the interview. This same predator completely ignored the other two Veterans standing right besides our female Marine in the wheel chair, both of whom wore shirts that identified them as a Wounded Warrior from Iraq, just without a visual injury. The Veteran immediately described a feeling of anger and frustration.
     
    In another example, a Veteran met the founder of a non-profit providing services to recent disabled Veterans. He wore an eye patch, as he still required further surgery before receiving a prosthetic eye. The founder, who was not a Veteran, barely made it through introductions before clamoring to a Veteran with an amputation, where multiple photos immediately occurred. This left the Veteran with a feeling being left behind.
     
    I write this not to establish and attitudes of us versus them, but rather to request fair and equal treatment to all Veterans. It matters not if service produced a life changing injury or during a time of peace. Every person who raised their hand and took an oath to support and defend the United States served our country. I will not sway anyone to support or donate to one organization over another, but simply ask yourself what organization seems to provide services that you support. If it takes too much effort to identify actual tangible services outside of “advocacy” or “raising awareness,” you probably need to look elsewhere.
     
    As a Veteran who identifies themselves as disabled, I only ask for fairness. Do not take pity or give me a hand out. I am not a victim of war, or my volunteered service to the United States of America. 
     
    I am a Veteran, who disabilities from war changed my life. I fully accept this new state, and embrace all challenges. I only desire your respect after earning the opportunity to prove myself.
     
    These are the items we need to assist in our transitions. It matters not if the transition started only a couple of days ago when the person incurred an injury from a deployment, or 70 years ago on the beaches of Normandy. Each Veteran carries with them the impacts of their traumas for life. What differs stems from how these items impacts quality of life and barriers to succeed.