Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Charles Brown of Paralyzed Veterans of America Is Helping To Change…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Charles Brown of Paralyzed Veterans of America Is Helping To Change Our World

Leadership is being able to give direction to achieve a goal, while encouraging and inspiring those around you to achieve that goal as a team. In the military, they say the best leaders lead from behind, and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their teams. Everyone plays an integral part of the mission. Very little can be accomplished on your own.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Brown, the national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).

Charles is a Marine Corps Veteran who was paralyzed during a diving accident while serving in Cherry Point, North Carolina. He credits his successful life after paralysis to Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), the organization that met him soon after his injury, and guided him to the benefits and services he needed. He is now the national president of PVA, the organization he says saved his life, serving other veterans with spinal cord injuries, and advocating for civil rights and accessibility for all people with disabilities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When the diving accident happened while I was in the Marine Corps, I didn’t comprehend exactly what it would mean for the rest of my life. I was 20 years old, lying in a hospital bed only able to move my eyebrows, and all I wanted to do was get back to my job in the military. A PVA service officer wheeled into my room — he was also a paralyzed veteran — and showed me that my life wasn’t over. They really saved my life, so I knew I wanted to give back and help others in the same way. My work with PVA through the years has been about continuing to serve my country in a different way. PVA helps veterans get the benefits and services they’ve earned, and PVA also advocates to make the world a more accessible place for millions of people with disabilities. It’s incredibly gratifying, to be part of an organization that helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 31 years ago and is still working to change the landscape of public spaces to be more inclusive of all people with disabilities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I can tell you about a harrowing experience I had that left me more determined than ever to fight for a basic civil right for people with disabilities like myself.

Two years ago, as I was boarding my flight, improperly trained airline staff dropped me onto the jetway when they were transferring me from my custom-made wheelchair to an aisle chair to get onto the plane. The fall fractured my tailbone, caused a dangerous infection and required surgery and months in the hospital. Doctors said I was lucky to survive.

PVA began the push to make air travel accessible for the disabled 35 years ago, with the Air Carrier Access Act, but huge problems are still rampant. Falls like mine during wheelchair transfers are common, as are broken wheelchairs and having no access to in-flight bathrooms, as they’re too small to fit a wheelchair. I routinely dehydrate myself and refrain from eating for 18 hours prior to a flight.

It’s unacceptable that people with disabilities face such dangerous uncertainty when they do something as simple as fly on an airplane! That is why PVA is pushing for the passage of the Air Carrier Amendments Act, which could improve conditions for travelers with disabilities.

This is a good example of the work that PVA does to fight for basic civil rights for all people with disabilities, such as the right to a safe and reasonably dignified flight experience. We need the public behind the fight for this amendment, so if you’re as outraged as we are, visit to sign our petition to help pass this amendment.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first day as national president of PVA, I was feeling excited and a bit nervous at the important tasks ahead in my new role. Then, I had an unfortunate key fob experience that reminded me not to take things too seriously! Maybe it was jitters, but when I went to use my key card to get into the building on that first day, the lanyard snapped, and the card flew off and tumbled down in a crack behind the elevator door. In a quick second, it disappeared down the elevator shaft, leaving me with no way to get to my office, on the first day as president!

Of course, I was running late to my first meeting, and now I had to call to get someone to come down and let me into the building! I was just hoping that the security camera hadn’t captured the whole clumsy incident. It was humbling to say the least, but it showed me even though I was now the leader of this important group, we’re all still human, and there are people to help you — even if it means physically getting you into the building!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

What makes PVA so impactful, is that we’re a relatively small organization rooted in helping veterans, that’s managed to impact millions of civilian lives as well over the last 75 years. PVA was created by WWII veterans who returned from battle with spinal cord injuries, and were essentially written off by society. Back then, nothing was accessible for someone in a wheelchair, and the survivability of a spinal cord injury wasn’t good. PVA worked with the VA to improve care of these veterans, and advocated for accessible public spaces, so veterans could shop, work and live full lives, despite their injuries.

PVA went on to work with legislators to get the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) passed in the 1980’s — key pieces of legislation requiring accessibility and beginning the push for civil rights for the disabled. You all see the effects of these laws everyday — wider doorways that accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, ramps and sidewalk cutouts in public spaces, and handicapped bathroom stalls. PVA’s architects have also influenced the accessible design of stadiums, memorials, and concert halls throughout the U.S., improving the experience for all Americans.

Today, people with mobility disabilities are one of the fastest growing segments of our aging population, so PVA’s advocacy work still plays a crucial role in improving the lives of millions of people with disabilities and their families, which quite literally could be you, or someone in your family, in the future.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

For me, the most impactful thing is seeing a veteran finally get the care and services that he or she has worked for but didn’t think they deserved. We see it all the time, veterans who’ve served, then become paralyzed for one reason or another, but don’t seek care through the VA. I saw one man who wasn’t getting good care, and didn’t have the right wheelchair, and he wasn’t even getting his VA benefits. I connected him with a PVA service officer, who helped to determine that his injuries could be connected to his service; within a week, he had a power chair, an appointment with the VA, and his whole life turned around.

I can tell you that the VA spinal cord injury care — which PVA is directly involved in every day throughout the U.S. — is second to none. It’s by far the best place to get comprehensive care for spinal cord injuries and diseases such as ALS and MS. So, when we get someone into that system of care, there’s almost always a huge improvement because it’s a one-stop-shop, with the very best resources someone with paralysis can get. It’s very gratifying to see someone finally access the benefits and care that they sacrificed for.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?


First, pass the Air Carrier Access Amendment to fix the inhumane and dangerous conditions that people with disabilities face during air travel.

Second, fully enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — don’t allow any state or municipality to bypass its important provisions.

Lastly, realize that full inclusion helps everyone! Curb cut outs help moms with strollers, ramps and wider entrances allow families to stay together in public spaces, and fully accessible air travel allows all members of society to attend important events. Anyone can become disabled at any point, especially as we age, so accessibility could become crucial to you or someone in your family. We should all care about and fight for these basic civil rights!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is being able to give direction to achieve a goal, while encouraging and inspiring those around you to achieve that goal as a team. In the military, they say the best leaders lead from behind, and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their teams. Everyone plays an integral part of the mission. Very little can be accomplished on your own.

PVA’s leadership works shoulder-to-shoulder with the entire disability community, to make sure we continue to ensure access and civil rights for all.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish someone had told me first, that no matter what, you’re not alone. Becoming paralyzed, it’s easy to wallow in what you’ve lost, and you can feel isolated. But truthfully, it can happen to anyone at any time, and there are millions of others who face similar challenges to you. PVA showed me that greater community, and now I am happy to pay it forward to help others in the same way.

Second, never stop working to make things better, every day. In my work at PVA, solving problems like accessibility, safety and health care can seem insurmountable, but if you focus on taking small steps one little bit at a time, you’re always moving forward and making a difference!

Third, don’t take yourself too seriously. You never know when you’ll need help just getting in the building because you dropped your key fob down the elevator shaft! It’s good to stay humble.

Fourth, teach someone to fish! A one-time handout helps for a day, but new skills or access to opportunities can help for a lifetime. This is what we’ve been doing for injured veterans for 75 years!

And lastly, always have hope. There’s always another step, another path to keep things moving and build more opportunities. PVA does this by investing in research and treatments to improve the lives of people with paralysis. There are some very exciting things on the horizon!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Through PVA, I am working every day to remove barriers in society for people with disabilities and preserve basic civil rights. The millions of Americans who have disabilities — veterans and civilians — deserve full inclusion in public spaces, in society and in life! PVA is also the only veterans service organization that regularly audits the VA system of care, to make sure that quality health care is available to all classes of veterans who’ve earned this benefit.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I try to keep in mind a very simple goal — Work to make things better each day. If something needs fixing, you can be the one to make it better! Do it a little at a time, but never stop working toward the goal, and never give up.

At first, I had to apply this to my own life, getting used to being paralyzed and in a wheelchair, and having to do things differently. I was used to fixing things in the military, so I tried that approach — to adjust a little each day. Eventually, I could move that lesson to the outside world, and onto helping others through PVA. Each day, our work gets us closer to specific goals, and closer to the big picture of full inclusion for all people with disabilities.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

A person I would love to have a private meeting with just happens to be the 2021 Time “Person of the Year”, Elon Musk. He has managed to influence many parts of our society by founding Tesla and SpaceX, and next up he wants to put people on Mars. His out-of-the-box thinking, and yes extreme resources, could certainly help paralyzed veterans get a seat on an airplane without risking their lives! I would love to tell him of PVA’s fight to create accessible spaces to improve the lives of millions of people. I bet he would join our mission!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @ParalyzedVeterans

Instagram: @pva1946

LinkedIn: @Paralyzed Veterans of America

Twitter: @PVA1946

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Charles Brown of Paralyzed Veterans of America Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.