Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Blinded Veterans Association 75th Anniversary and Virtual Conference
August 12, 2020
Hello, I’m Robert Wilkie. I’m glad to be with you for the Blinded Veterans Association’s 75th Anniversary and Virtual Conference.
This year’s conference is different from any we have experienced. But the work you’re doing will ensure BVA remains a champion for America’s blind and visually impaired Veterans and active duty servicemembers.
In 1944 while America’s Veterans were defeating fascism in World War II, President Roosevelt made a strong commitment to our nation’s Veterans and servicemembers. He declared, “No blinded servicemen . . . would be returned to their homes without adequate training to meet the problems . . . imposed upon them by their blindness.”
Soon after, VA’s first Blind Rehabilitation Center opened its doors in Hines, Illinois. Today, VA is providing lifetime care coordination to over 41,000 blinded and visually impaired Veterans, helping them develop skills they need for independence and successful reintegration into community and homelife.
Last year, our Optometry Services provided eye and vision care to nearly one and a half million American Veterans. Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Services provided millions of eyeglasses, closed circuit televisions, smart technology devices, and other optical aids. Our adaptive sports programs are giving visually impaired Veterans the chance to re-engage in leisure, health, and wellness activities. We’re even helping blind and low-vision Veterans train for Paralympic sports and compete with the national Olympic Team. And our Vision Center of Excellence, in partnership with the Department of Defense, continues to produce world-class treatment options for challenges like visual problems caused by Traumatic Brain Injury.
All of this great work represents life-changing opportunities for our blind and visually impaired Veterans.
The COVID epidemic has presented new challenges for the nation and VA. But it’s an even greater challenge for blind or visually impaired Veterans, especially those with limited transportation options and caregiver support. In response, our Blind Rehabilitation Specialists launched a nationwide initiative, conducting over 90,000 wellness checks with visually impaired Veterans. And in spite of the pandemic, we continue providing access to vision rehabilitation through VA Video Connect, Skype, Face Time, Facebook Messenger video chat, among other platforms.
And thanks to BVA’s advocacy, the Kules and Benne Specially Adaptive Housing Improvement Act of 2019 is ready for President Trump’s signature. This Act will give blind Veterans expanded access to specially adapted housing benefits that support their needs and maximize independence. It will provide more funding for eligible Veterans to adapt their homes to specific needs. And in an important change, under the new law visually impaired Veterans without lower extremity disabilities can now qualify for these benefits. So we’re staying connected while keeping on the cutting edge of blind services and rehabilitation. As one blind Veteran said, “There are no stop signs in life, only speed bumps.”
Working together the last 75 years, we have helped millions of blind and low-vision Americans achieve greater and greater independence. With your help, we are living up to Franklin Roosevelt’s promise.
I want to leave you with one note from history that I think defines everything we do at VA. The night before the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions launched the liberation of Europe on June 6, 1944, General Matthew Ridgway relied on a promise God made to Joshua that “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” And that’s VA’s commitment to our blind and visually impaired Veterans and servicemembers today.
We will not fail you. We will not forsake you. And we thank you for your devoted service and your example of courage and determination that inspires all Americans.
God bless you and your families and this great country of ours.