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Vol. LXI, No. 25
December 11, 2009

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From ‘Ugly Laws’ to the ADA
Pimentel Speaks on Disability, Activism, Attitudes

Dr. Richard Pimentel  

Dr. Richard Pimentel


Why is Dr. Richard Pimentel smiling?

He survived a rough childhood and a tour in Vietnam. He survived a suicide mission, a rocket attack and traumatic hearing loss. He survived coming home to America, requesting educational funding under the G.I. Bill, then getting denied because he was “deaf.”

Now a disability management expert, writer, comedian and the inspiration for the Hollywood film Music Within, Pimentel not only survived, he prevailed and helped change the way folks with disabilities get treated at work, in restaurants and in court. He recently spoke at the 26th annual awards program as part of NIH Disability Employment Awareness Month, sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management.

“If you think about how people with disabilities are treated today,” he told the audience in Wilson Hall, “it seems almost unbelievable that in 1970 we lived in a disability apartheid.”

That was the year Pimentel finally got funding for college in Portland, Ore. His involvement with the disability movement started there, grounded in the era’s activism and its philosophical roots. He’s also got a deep strain of gallows humor—the hard-won weapon of the underdog—which wakes the audience up.

“If they didn’t want me to commit civil disobedience,” he asked the audience, “then why did they make me read Thoreau?”

A 19th-century American writer and a fierce opponent of slavery, Thoreau argued for the right and duty to follow your conscience; if that means breaking an unjust law, so be it.

“I didn’t go to Vietnam to fight for people I didn’t care about, to come home and find that the people I did care about were having their rights taken away,” Pimentel said.

Here’s the defining moment. Imagine two guys hanging out in a pancake house: one is Pimentel, the other is his friend Art.

“Art was the smartest person I have ever known in the whole world,” said Pimentel.

Now, Art has a $10 bill, so he’s buying. He also has cerebral palsy and he’s in a wheelchair. The disease has affected his coordination and speech, but not his cognition.

Then the waitress comes over.

“She says the cruelest, meanest, vilest thing,” said Pimentel. “She says to Art, ‘You are the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I won’t serve you. People like you should die at birth.’

“So Art turns to me and says, ‘Richard, why is she talking to you that way?’”

Art was willing to go to jail. Pimentel wasn’t. The two friends started to argue in earnest. The waitress called the police.

Both men were arrested, tried and found guilty under the so-called “ugly laws.” Several states then had openly discriminatory statutes dating from the mid-19th century, the era of “Barnum & Bailey’s freak show.”

“‘No unsightly person shall be out upon the public thoroughfare,’” Pimentel said, quoting from memory.

Sentenced to time served, they both went right back out there.

“We did this 34 more times,” Pimentel said. “We mobilized all our friends and veterans and we made them arrest us. Why? Because we read Thoreau. Who else read Thoreau? Gandhi. And who read Gandhi? Martin Luther King. We knew we were worthy to drink from that same stream.

“We changed one little law that wouldn’t let Art in the pancake house. It took over 20 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, which a lot of politicians and powerful lawyers helped write. But the ADA was started by people like Art, who just wanted to have breakfast,” he said.

The ADA, passed in 1990 and last amended in 2008, is a comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. It is enforced by the Department of Justice.

Pimentel is now with Richard Milt Wright and Associates, which focuses on disability management, job creation and employment resources. He described traumatic brain injury as the “injury du jour” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; many returning servicemembers are affected.

“I’ve been able to work with some of the best agencies, the best people, in the federal government,” he said, “and this is what I’ve learned.

“One: There’s nothing wrong with people with disabilities, just something wrong with how we react to them…I went into this field wanting to heal people. I ended up healing my own attitudes.

“Two: Never let your personal prejudice be mistaken for professional expertise…Don’t project your own dreams on people with disabilities.”

And three, Pimentel concluded, “The most important skill for people with disabilities is the ability to make people comfortable enough so they no longer see what you have; they see what you are.”

The Disability Employment Awareness Month program also recognized that for the last 5 years, NIH has led HHS in hiring students under the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities. NIH Disability Employment Program Manager Carlton Coleman thanked NIH leadership, including deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington, for their support, then presented awards to 18 supervisors for their “full participation.” NIHRecord Icon

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