140 characters or less is the ideal form of expression for Steve Streett, a veteran living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS weakens and eventually destroys the body’s motor neurons, making functions such as walking and talking very difficult. Paralysis quickly results.
The disease has progressed to the point that Steve uses a power wheelchair to ambulate and must speak through a computer—typing his thoughts into a program that converts text to speech—but ALS certainly hasn’t silenced him. Rather, Steve turned to the Twitter community as an outlet for his humor and activism. Because of the effort required to type, Twitter represents an ideal medium for Steve, as users must “tweet” in 140 characters or less.
Through frequent #ALS hash tags and @PVA1946 “re-tweets,” Steve raises awareness about ALS and Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) through his @ITHINKSTRONG Twitter account. “Twitter gives the opportunity to talk to and meet different people by quick chatter on light or heavy topics,” Steve says.
A U.S. Air Force veteran, Steve served from 1982 to 1992, in England and the United States, rising to the rank of staff sergeant before leaving the service. He received the devastating diagnosis in 2003, having had symptoms for two years.
In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs established Lou Gehrig’s disease as a presumptive compensable illness after studies found an association between military service and later development of ALS. This cleared the way for veterans like Steve to claim VA benefits. Paralyzed Veterans immediately began working to locate, educate and assist these veterans with their claims.
The Streetts, however, originally filed without assistance from a veterans service officer. They encountered a setback in obtaining benefits when VA officials demanded that they speak with Steve—which was unfeasible as a result of the disease.
So in 2009 his wife, Petrina, contacted the Baltimore Service Office of Paralyzed Veterans and spoke with Rose Quinn, a helpful secretary who eased the Streetts’ situation.
“Rose became an invaluable asset to both me and my wife,” Steve explains. “Rose would take on our issues as though they were her own.”
Through the efforts of Paralyzed Veterans, Steve was able to obtain grants for an accessible van and accessible shower renovation. The Baltimore Service Office even found a discrepancy in his VA disability rating, which was subsequently rectified.
With those matters settled, Steve focuses on tweeting. His Twitter activity, in fact, motivated him to participate in the Packard Center’s Fiesta 5K in May 2012, a charity race aimed at raising awareness and money for ALS research. Steve says. “Our team [ithinkstrong] raised over $4,000.”
The event was an opportunity for the Streetts to raise awareness about ALS. Steve, who believes in the adage that laughter is the best medicine, used humor to engage the other participants.
“After 10 years of living with this albatross, I lighten the tone by cracking a joke or saying something ridiculous,” Steve says. “It also makes others forget their troubles for a moment.”
Update: In 2012, unfortunately Steve lost his battle with #ALS. We are forever grateful for his service.
Jeremy Diamond is an International Relations & Political Science double-major at The George Washington University.
Learn more about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)/Lou Gehrig’s disease