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.

First Steps with Guide Dog training

Starting today my trusty Chris Park Designs cane will take a backseat when it comes down to orientation and mobility. This slender telescoping white cane will be set aside in favor of a guide dog from America’s Vet Dogs, an affiliate of the Guide Dog Foundation. As of the writing of this post, I am unaware of the details about the guide dog, and will not be able to report on it for several days yet, however, these next posts with chronicle the experience.

The choice to apply for a guide dog came after many years and discussions with my wife and family. This is due to the lifestyle changes necessary to successfully incorporate a guide dog into ones life and family. Keep in mind that a white cane, while effectively creating independence for the blind, remains an inanimate object that one places in a pocket, bag, or purse when not in use. When the cane breaks or is no longer serviceable, one discards it.

Differently, a guide dog is a living and breathing life form capable of delivering and receiving love. A guide dog becomes apart of the life of the blind and their family. Its this bond that makes a guide dog much more than a tool for the blind, but a completely new method for overcoming barriers associated with blindness through a lifelong bond a cane cannot replicate.

It is this difference between the guide dog and white cane that prompted me to reconsider what type of mobility meets my needs. I finalized my decision to seriously pursue the process for requesting a guide dog last year during the Blinded Veterans Association National Convention. Jenine Stanley, of America’s Vet Dogs demonstrated guide dogs to interested individuals. This comprised of a walk around the convention area and nearby sidewalks with her guide dog. During this experience, I felt the power and freedom a guide dog provided when compared to a cane. For example, prior to going blind, my walking pace can be best described as a range walk or a very quick step. Since adopting a cane, this pace dramatically slowed down as the cane forces one to find obstacles to navigate. When a sighted person walks, the subconscious marks these obstacles and automatically maps then and finds the best route. The cane is incapable of this, thus slowing ones walking speed. A guide dog returns this simple aspect of walking back to the blind, allowing a quicker and more confident manner of walking and traveling. Its this level of confidence I never truly felt with a cane, but instantly felt it through the symbiotic relationship for those few minutes with a dog.

Once I returned home, my wife and I discussed this decision in detail and opted to pursue the guide dog. Selecting America’s Vet Dogs required little debate thanks to the number of friends who acquired their guide dog from here.

Well, that was roughly six months ago, and now here I sit within the Guide Dog Foundation’s facilities reflecting upon the experience thus far. Having arrived last night, we just started upon the process of learning about becoming a guide dog handler. This consisted of orientation to the building, schedule of events for the next several days, daily routines, and the first lessons with the harness and leash attached to an instructor. Just through this introduction, I feel the excitement growing, anticipating the arrival of the guide dog later this afternoon.

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.

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.

Consumers Lead the Way

As a visually impaired Veteran, I directly benefit from consumer and legislative protections and services for disabilities. Most of these required years of direct consumer activism, like the Rehabilitation Services Act and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Products like the iPhone and numerous apps increase my independence, but this required us as a market to demonstrate potential profitability and need. As a recipient of blind rehabilitation, Blind Specialists created and evolve the field to improve the quality of our lives. 

 

Today, bureaucratic processes and complex systems for declaring grievances  limit interactions with decision makers, silencing many voices.

This atmosphere closely resembles those conditions our fore-parents faced. Individuals like Jane Adams and Frances Perkins took a stance to advocate and establish systems of support for disenfranchised populations before any of the safety nets existed. Within the world of blindness, Richard Hoover, Russ Williams, and Warren Bledsoe devised the modern day orientation and mobility techniques before evidence-based interventions arose.

 

These empowering movements slowly changed as leaders and organizations shifted focus from social change to insurance covered modalities or federal reimbursable actions. Only through open dialog shall these trends reverse Below, two examples highlights how this appears today.

 

Central Blind Rehabilitation Center Technology Week
The Central Blind Rehab Center (CBRC) at the Edward Hines VA Medical Center conducted a week long pilot program. Inviting twelve alumni Veterans, each shared experiences integrating technology into daily life. The CBRC director recognized that consumers could provide more advance training for her staff.

Working cooperatively, the CBRC managed to receive valuable input on technologies that impact Veterans. Potentially, the lessons learned will influence not only blind rehabilitation within Hines, but throughout the entire VA system.

 

G3ICT
The Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) erects an international version of the ADA. Spearheading the technology segments, G3ICT facilitates conferences, summits, accessibility standards, and various other endeavors. The outcomes informs policy makers, corporations, end-users, and even rehabilitation trainers on how to execute adoption and execution of inclusive technology.

 

An example for this occurred in June 2014. The M-Enabling Summit captured the attention from industry leaders from Microsoft, Adobe, Verizon, AT&T, FCC, Apple Accessibility, and many developers for Android like VelaSense. Fostering collaboration with consumer advocacy groups, the AFB, RNIB, BVA, IAAP, Lighthouse, and many others directly interacted with developers through panel discussions, sidebars, and a multitude of other fashions. Really emphasizing this interactions, the RNIB representative during the closing panel stated that industry must reach out and utilize consumer groups, and consumer groups must aggressively engage with industry.

 

Taking Point
As these points illustrates, evolution only arises when all parties come together. With technology permeating all facets of physical life, international rights for disabilities, and changing rehabilitation paradigms, we consumers will witness an array of chances to participate. When you see your chances surface, grab ahold and share.

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.

Work in Progress, Resources and Links Page

On this day of remembrance for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I spent the time assembling the Resources and Links webpage. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress. Once completed, this will serve as a one stop shop for all of the community and VA websites, phone numbers, and addresses. This might be a rather superficial way to spend today, but education stands as one of the pillars for successful advocacy campaigns.

 

 One only knows what they know, while education serves to illuminate that which we do not know. It remains my hope that establishing this website and compiling a full list of information will enable at least one person to learn more about the greater world of blindness and the tools available.

 

Is there a connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Disability one? Simple answer is yes. While both movements slowly built up steam throughout the 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement achieved the first set of meaningful changes in society and legislation. Most of the history books zoom in on the activities of the 1950’s to 1970’s and the number of upheavals and societal change.

 

For the disability movement, we started to show success at first with JFK’s Community Mental Health Act of 1963. However, our first landmark victory occurred during the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Like most governmental policy shifts, it takes another piece of legislation to enforce it. In this case, the implementation of Section 504 of the Rehab Act of 1977 ensured governmental assistance.

 

With these two measures in place, many believed that nothing else would be necessary to ensure equal access. This feeling of complacency spreads rather quickly amongst society after a landmark piece of legislation is introduced or action that raises awareness. MLK fought against this throughout his advocacy campaigns, which is why he relentlessly pursued his dream.

 

We in the disability community preformed a similar action during the entire 1980’s. During this time, President Reagan threatened to deconstruct much of what little gains towards universal access that arose in the 1970’s. However, an unlikely friendship developed between then Vice President George Bush and Justin Dart, that would change the landscape for the disability community. This bond steered the path for the acceptance and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

 

Today, we have seen many of these different movements either fuse together or lend mutual support. Advocates must do this to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. For those that work with individuals, we continuously strive to educate those who are just entering into these communities on the resources, services, and assistance out there.

 

So please, take the time to look over the Resources and Links page, and place any recommendations or edits in the comment field in this blog.

Visually Impaired Veterans by War Era

Greetings everyone,


As a way to start off this blog, one needs to first understand the various visual impairments commonly impacting Veterans. In an oversimplified manner to accomplish this mission, this post will describe visual impairments by war era. I do not wish to discredit those Veterans who served either during peacetime or between these major conflicts, but rather identify those eras those outside Veteran communities might understand.

 

Overview:

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, roughly 17% of injured Service Members incurred a visual impairment. 36,000 have received visual impairments related to Traumatic Brain injuries. The VA’s Public Health Services reports a much larger number, 118,150 Veterans, as incurring some form of optical injury. 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. These injuries creates a range of injuries from losing an eye, low vision, legal blindness, to complete blindness.


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. Research has only recently started to examine functional blindness, and many doctors, case managers, and organizations still question the legitimacy of these claims. However, these conditions are real, especially to those Veterans and Service Members living with them.

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. 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.


Looking at the Department of Veterans Affairs eligibility for compensation, here are a few thoughts. For those Veterans who lost an eye during their military service, they can qualify for an increase in their disability compensation should the remaining eye begins to deteriorate. This stems from the VA’s policy on paired organs, like Eyes, hearing, kidneys, and lungs. Any loss or functioning of the remaining paired organ will be considered as service connected as it is the only remaining organ of its kind. On a different note, some Veterans have received compensation for sight loss from diabetes retinopathy, since Agent Orange exposure caused their diabetes. While this is a grey area matter, one should consult a certified Veteran Service Officer.

http://www.lawyers4veterans.com/VA-Disability-Compensation/Types-of-VA-Disability-Claims/Agent-Orange-Related-Conditions.aspx

http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/38/3.383


World War II and Korean War Veterans:

For those Veterans who served during these eras, a combination of service related andage related conditions take a heavy toll on sight impairments and independent living. Both of these generations reached the ages when Age Related Macular Degeneration or glaucoma increases exponentially. Some estimates show that over 20% of those 80 years of older develop these forms of sight loss. In many cases, a co-occurring hearing impairment adds to their limitations. This places a very heavy burden on both the Veteran and their support systems. 

http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/maculardegen/armd_facts.asp

 

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. It matters not if the Veteran incurred their sight loss from war or developed a naturally occurring condition, VA Blind Rehab Services provides training and even equipment to all Veterans. Many Veterans qualify for these services at no cost. Entry point into these programs requires one to contact their Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) or visit the below website.

http://www.va.gov/blindrehab/