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Prosthetically Gifted

Bill Van Aken, Prosthetics at VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System

With over 30 years of combined federal experience, Bill recalls changes that were made immediately following ADA being signed in 1990 and how it affected his ability to continue working with a prosthetic device.

Bill Van Aken’s smile and wave are familiar staples at VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System’s (VASNHCS) main campus. With his prior service in the Army, combined with 21 years serving as a rating specialist at the Reno office of Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) and now eight years working in the prosthetics department at VASNHCS, Bill has certainly seen a lot of changes within the facilities. What was one of the largest improvements that directly impacted him? Doorknobs.

Bill is an amputee. While his coworkers poke at his age jokingly by mentioning he was there in person when they signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 31 years ago, on June 23, 1990, Bill remembers the changes that were made almost immediately following the signing of the ADA. “The ADA has a broad reach that encompasses a lot of areas for people that are disabled and need assistance to work and live independently,” he says.

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability. The ADA also outlaws discrimination against individuals with disabilities in state and local government services, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications. Employers cannot deny reasonable accommodations for proven or obvious disabilities. Employers also cannot retaliate against you for asking for disability accommodations.

Back to those doorknobs.

Imagine having a prosthetic device as your right arm and hand, holding an armload of documents in your left arm, and the only way through the door in front of you is by turning a doorknob. Bill’s been left standing on the other end of that door many times, knocking and waiting for someone to open it. While at the VBA, Bill asked for one thing, which VBA accommodated almost immediately - replace the doorknobs with door handles. VASNHCS did the same. “I didn’t have to rely on someone else to do my job, and for me that was huge,” Bill admits.

VA also has many programs for Veterans with disabilities that not only help with finding employment, but even outfitting a home to meet ADA standards. For example, if a Veteran has stairs leading into their home and is in a wheelchair or using a walker, VA can provide ramps into the home that meet a very strict standard. “A proper ramp that allows a Veteran access to their home or job must be 1 foot in length for every 1 inch of elevation and also has railings, per ADA regulations,” explains Bill. This only applies to a home that is owned by the Veteran and not a rental. “If it is a rental, then the homeowner is responsible for making those accommodations.”

VA also has another program called Home Improvement Special Adaptation (HISA) that allows for a Veteran with disabilities to obtain a one-time grant of up to $6,800 to refurbish their home to help them accomplish their activities of daily living. “We’ve done hundreds of bathroom remodifications, such as installing a walk-in or roll-in shower, elevated toilets, and we’ve even removed carpeting and had flooring put in, such as slip resistant tile or laminate flooring for Veterans in wheelchairs,” says Bill. “Everything is installed by a VA employee who is certified to install all devices per ADA regulations.”

Special Adaptive Housing and Special Home Adaptation are two more VA grants that can assist Veterans who are disabled with modifying a home that they own. These grants are typically only for use by Veterans who have lost at least two extremities and are classified as “more severely disabled”. The Special Home Adaptation grant offers up to $21,000, while the Special Adaptive Housing grant offers up to $100,000 towards modifications. Both grants are administered by the VA Loan Guarantee program. “Here in the Prosthetics office, we work very closely with the representative for the VA Loan Guarantee Program for northern Nevada and northern California. We’ve done a lot of fantastic work together on behalf of our Veterans,” Bill shares with pride.

When asked if he felt there was anything VASNHCS could improve upon in the workplace as an employer and provider of people with disabilities, Bill shares, “As a facility, I think we do an amazing job. There are still a few rare individuals, however, who are less than understanding. I think we could do better in making sure that everyone understands that just because you have a disability, whatever that disability is, it doesn’t mean you’re helpless. It doesn’t mean that you can’t accomplish things and do things independently.”

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