Frank Rigo served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor to the U.S. Air Force, and is a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He has been a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America for nearly 54 years. Beginning in 1978, he served for 25½ years as Paralyzed Veterans’ national secretary, retiring in 2002, and was re-elected to the position in 2008.
When Frank was first paralyzed in the 1950s, he quickly discovered that the world wasn’t very friendly for people who use wheelchairs—for example, there were no curb cuts to help a wheelchair user get onto a sidewalk. And that’s just one of many obstacles Frank faced.
A lot has changed in the past 50 years. Thanks in part to the efforts of Paralyzed Veterans of America—the only veterans service organization with a staff of licensed architects—it’s become much easier for wheelchair users and all people with disabilities to get around. From reviewing blueprints for Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to advocating for changes in public spaces and buildings, Paralyzed Veterans of America architects bring a unique perspective that enables them to identify—and eliminate—obstacles in the physical environment.
Frank Rigo says:
"If you were in a wheelchair like I was in the ’50s, you had to be a lot more athletic. Because there were no curb cuts, you had to learn to jump curbs with your wheelchair. Department stores were another problem. I learned how to go up and down escalators in my chair.
I’ve been involved with Paralyzed Veterans of America for more than 50 years. They have helped change the world for people in wheelchairs, starting with VA hospitals, which are much easier to get around in these days compared to my first experience in the 1950s. Back then, the Long Beach VA hospital was a converted Army barracks. Today, when many patients have a private bathroom and shower, there was one large room used by several patients with a bathtub, not a shower. And even something as common as opening a door was a daily frustration. You had to jerk the door toward you, jam your foot in the door, and pull the door open. Now sensors often open the door automatically as you approach.
The world isn’t perfect—I still avoid department stores from November until February because the aisles are choked by large tables with merchandise. But at least I don’t find myself staring up at a building with lobby doors that are too small or faced with revolving doors wondering, how am I going to get in there?"
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America's Architecture Department