This Memorial Day there are five new names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. One is that of SPC Charles J. “Charlie” Sabatier, U.S. Army, a nationally known advocate for persons with disabilities—and a former director of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Advocacy Program during the 1970s. Sabatier’s name was unveiled in a ceremony May 8, 2011, at which Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood delivered a tribute for Sabatier’s lifelong efforts on behalf of the disabled.
Paralyzed after being shot during the Tet Offensive, Sabatier spent the rest of his life pushing against barriers that denied access. “Whether at Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Disability Rights Center or the Department of Labor, Charlie was passionate about ensuring that people with disabilities were given dignity,” says Doug Vollmer, associate executive director for Paralyzed Veterans’ Government Relations Department.
That people with mobility issues can enjoy full access to our nation’s memorials is a testament not only to Sabatier’s consciousness-raising, but to Paralyzed Veterans' 30-year commitment to ensuring that all design, from medical equipment to monuments, responds to the needs of persons with disabilities. “Whenever we get involved and we advocate for an accessible facility, there is awareness that you need to incorporate good design—things like tactile surfaces and signage. It can’t just be random,” Maureen McCloskey, associate director, Advocacy, says.
In fact, the paths that allow wheelchair users and people with other mobility difficulties to navigate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are there thanks to Paralyzed Veterans. The original design, which predates Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, had no hard-packed surface top for travel, just grass. “We testified before the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Parks Commission for changes that would accommodate mobility aids,” Vollmer says.
After that, Paralyzed Veterans developed an in-house architecture program—the only veterans organization to do so—that has given pro bono assistance to the Korean War Memorial, World War II Memorial and now the Disabled Veterans Memorial, slated to rise at the foot of the Capitol.
Mark Lichter, head of the organization’s Architecture Program, points to the many reasons Paralyzed Veterans’ advice is given weight by design teams and committees: “We’re staffed by licensed architects who really understand accessibility and the needs of veterans,” he says. “With backgrounds in construction and design, we know the processes involved; we understand accessibility requirements and building codes.”
When Lichter participated in a World War II Memorial meeting held for all service organizations, he recommended widening pathways to allow for maneuvering, properly draining and grading paths to prevent them from being too slippery or steep and relocating sightlines. He also pointed out that wheelchair users could not join their families on a lawn area intended for people to sit and watch presentations—“the cross paths were only for circulation.” Designers widened them and added a place for people in wheelchairs to sit and participate.
Paralyzed Veterans is now advising on the Disabled Veterans Memorial. “There’s a high sensitivity level to veterans in wheelchairs,” Lichter notes, “but also to the blind and all types of disabilities. Just meeting the code doesn’t make it. You have to think about all the users here—this really needs to be done right.”
Lee Fleming is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose articles appear in national publications and on the Web.