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By Luke T. Bush (C) 2013
PLATTSBURGH CITY, NY - 9/30/13
For community advocate Debra Buell it wasn't going to be that complicated.
But it was.
Like many others Debra assumed that the DAV free ride program provided transportation to all veterans to the area VA Medical Center. This program is jointly operated by two agencies, the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) and the VA (Federal Veterans Administration). She heard that local veterans in wheelchairs were being excluded from the free ride program because the DAV van lacked either a ramp or a lift.
She approached the problem as just a local situation. All she wanted to do was to have the van modified, a relatively simple process.
While not a military veteran Debra for many years has pushed for improving the circumstances of disabled people. With her limited mobility she knew firsthand how a wheelchair user has to confront accessibility problems.
But after she did some online research she discovered that outside of a few exceptions the same problem with DAV vans not being wheelchair accessible existed in other localities across the US. Veterans in wheelchairs were being left at the curb.
To keep their medical appointments these veterans had to make other arrangements such as being placed on a stretcher and then transported by ambulance, meaning a costly ride instead of a free one. An ambulance ride, explains Debra, from Plattsburgh to the Albany VA Medical Center can cost up to $2000 out of pocket. Veterans and their communities have to raise the money through charity fundraisers.
She also discovered reports – none so far from New York State – that in some cases a veteran with an ambulatory disability still couldn't take advantage of a VA Medical Center even with ambulance transportation. Some VA Medical Centers don’t provide a wheelchair or a person to push one after arrival at the facility.
Her online research led to making phone calls to professionals serving veterans across the nation and learning more about the extent of the problem. What was relatively simple became a complex issue involving organizations at many levels from local to national.
In her online analysis Debra states that while the DAV claims it doesn't discriminate, in fact it is excluding mobility impaired veterans and therefore violating not only federal laws but also the requirements under which it receives grants.
While the Web in a sense "complicated" her advocacy it also provided a way to address the issue on a greater scale. Under the auspices of North Country Center for Independence (NCCI), a petition was started at change.org, Soldiers left behind...Veterans in Wheelchairs barred from DAV National Transportation Program, to push for all DAV vans to be properly equipped for wheelchair users.
In addition, Debra says, advocates are working towards a change with the DAV written policy pertaining to wheelchair users and the free ride vans, removing the discriminatory restriction that states "ambulatory only/no wheelchairs". She hopes many people will check out the petition and sign it. More signatures signify a louder voice.
Through her efforts numerous people have called or emailed her to learn more and to see what they can do.
To Debra the issue may be complicated but at the same time it's simple: as stated in the petition, vans not wheelchair accessible means the most physically disabled veterans are being left out. No soldier should be left behind.
For more information call the North Country Center for Independence at (518) 563-9058.
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