by Chelle Wyatt
Richard Pimentel was the keynote speaker for the 2016 SWC Boise, ID Convention. The convention crew was honored to have him speak and attendees were excited, especially after watching the movie Music Within depicting his life and his work toward the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). So much of what he said I didn’t want to paraphrase so where the text appears in blue, it’s directly quoted from his speech.
A short bio of Richard’s life can be found on the website where he works:
“Richard Pimentel was pronounced dead at birth in the delivery room. In a miraculous turn of events, he lived. His mother, who had experienced three miscarriages before his birth, left him in an orphanage, unable to come to terms with his existence. After his father’s death, he was raised by his impoverished grandmother and deemed “retarded” by a school guidance counselor. He never spoke a word until age six.
After his mother abandoned him again for a new boyfriend, Richard was left homeless and roamed from friend’s homes to his father’s old workplace, a strip bar. He lived and slept in the dressing room. During these hard times, he managed to win two national high school speech championships and was offered a college scholarship by College Bowl founder, Dr. Ben Padrow. Richard arrived on campus only to hear Dr. Padrow tell him to come back when he had “something to say.”
Richard followed Dr. Padrow’s advice and quit school. Soon after he was drafted to Vietnam, where he survived a volunteer suicide mission and became an acknowledged war hero. During his brief celebration, a stray bomb exploded in his bunker and ravaged his hearing. Not only did Richard lose his hearing, he developed tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears. The government dismissed his dreams of college and public speaking, insisting his fate was one of insanity and rage due to his condition.”
Richard started his speech with humor, talking about his past and growing up in Portland, Oregon…. Being poor enough to be on the “relief” program (before food stamps) and getting the worst peanut butter ever which came in a can and had to be shaken with a paint shaker to be mixed. There was no money for a college education so he took up a government program called Vietnam, were a college education could be obtained after government service.
Several times we laughed as he talked about his service years leading up to a tense moment when his small unit was surrounded by the enemy on a suicide mission. Decisions had to made and they made it back to camp where they were holding funeral services for the 5 men who were expected to die.
The men were awarded a night in the beer bunker for their survival. Ten hours later a rocket was exploded on top of the beer bunker while they were still in there and the bunker imploded. “What did the implosion do? Well, the worst part of the bunker, where all the air came together, air at high velocity in a confined space, it literally blew the eyes out of the person who was there. All the rest of us got traumatic brain injuries. Even death.” It caused him to lose 70% of his hearing, losing the high frequencies, a classic ski slope loss.
After the explosion, he had to learn to walk, talk and even feed himself again-which he said he mastered almost immediately. Once he was getting around again, he wanted to go to college and the government refused.
You know what the rehab person told me? He said: Well, I can’t spend government money on sending you to college.
I said, why not?
He said, because you are deaf!
I said, what? Those counselors have no sense of humor. I said, I’m not deaf, you moron. You are talking to me.
He said, no, no, you are not totally deaf. If you were totally deaf, you’d be fine. I’d just send you to Gallaudet and make a good deaf person out of you. But you lost over half your hearing. You don’t have any hearing in the upper register. You got good hearing in the lower register. So you know what you can’t hear?
I said, what can’t I hear?
Well, you can’t hear the beginning and ends of all consonants. They are all going to sound the same to you. Your T’s and your Z’s and your V’s, they will all sound the same. He said, you know what you hear?
I said, what?
Your vowels. You hear your vowels: A, E, I, O, ooh. But not your Y’s, not even sometimes.
I said, what do I do? Do I learn Sign Language?
He said, you don’t want to learn Sign Language. The only people who do Sign Language are the deaf, and they don’t want to talk to you!
I said, well, what do I do?
Well, if you don’t hear consonants but you hear vowels, you only have two choices in your life either learn to read lips or you move to Hawaii!”
The counselor went to explain how tinnitus would keep him from learning as well and possibly drive him crazy. His hearing loss and tinnitus would make him angry, violent and foul mouthed.
Moving on, the counselor asked him what he wanted to do in life and Richard said he wanted to be a public speaker. The counselor told him it wasn’t possible and pulled out a big book of disabilities. The book listed careers people could do with their disability, under deaf was listed “shoemaker”. The counselor moved on to traumatic brain injury and pointed the list of options out to Richard and asked do you see “professional speaker” listed? No? Then you can’t do it.
Richard decided to prove him wrong. He learned to read lips and went to college anyway. There he met Art Honeyman who had severe cerebral palsy. Most people couldn’t understand Art but Richard understood him perfectly. It turned out Arts speech lined up with Richard’s audiogram perfectly. Art had high IQ and Richard often translated for him. Then Richard wouldn’t be able to understand the person talking to them so Art would translate for him (Art could hear). “We were the strangest pair you ever saw in your life!”
Art was in wheelchair and the majority of public places were inaccessible in 1970. As an example, the college dorms and bathrooms were only accessible if Richard or someone else carried Art over their shoulder. They became good friends.
On his birthday in 1972, Art called him at 3 am to go out and celebrate with pancakes. He needed Richard to help him dress and carry him and his wheelchair down 3 flights of stairs, then push him 8 blocks to the restaurant where he had to pull him more steps to get inside. Richard figured why not and did it.
The waitress had come up and never seen anyone like Art before. She said the cruelest thing I ever heard in my life, cruelest thing I have ever heard in my life. She went to Art and she said, you are the ugliest thing I have ever seen in my life. Do you expect me to bring you food? And I don’t know how you are going to eat it, like some pig in a trough. You are going to make us all sick. So I won’t serve you. Get out. She said, I thought people like you are supposed to die at birth.
I looked at my friend, Art. He’s my best friend. What’s he going to do? How’s he going to react? Is this going to ruin his life? Remember, he’s a genius. But he’s better than a genius he’s an evil genius! And Art turned to me, and I will tell you exactly what he said. He looked at me and said, Richard, why is she talking to you that way?! You don’t look any worse than you normally look!
Lord knows, I wanted to say it to him before, but he was my friend. I said, she’s not talking to me, she’s talking to you!
He said, there’s only two of us; how can you be sure?
I said, I think she’s trying to take me home and trying to get rid of you.
So we got into this big argument about who she wanted to date, and that made her really mad. You can either leave, she said, or I can call the police.
And I said, call ’em.
And they came. And the police said, you can either leave or you can go to jail. And Art said the words that changed my life: He said, I want to go to jail. Then he said, and Richard wants to go to jail too.
I said, no! I don’t want to go to jail. I want to get a job with a big American company.
I could have left. Art wouldn’t have blamed me. I could have just got up and said, I am not going to go, and they would have taken Art to jail. But a few things occurred to me.
First intellectual reason was, if they didn’t want me to commit civil disobedience, why then did they require me to read Thoreau?
The second intellectual reason: I didn’t go to Vietnam to protect people I don’t know to come back to find the people I care about have no rights.
The third one wasn’t intellectual, okay? How the hell are they going to fingerprint Art? This I got to see. This will be worth going to jail for.
They were jailed and appeared before the judge who found them guilty under the “Ugly Law.” Portland Oregon had an Ugly Law. Richard realized he was living in a time of disability apartheid, this seven years after the Civil Rights were enacted. Art and Richard continued going to places there weren’t welcomed and were arrested again and again.
Why? Because we believed since they were enforcing an absolutely unjust and unfair law, that if we made them do it over and over again, eventually they would have to change the law out of embarrassment. I started a mission in 1972 that ended 20 years later with the passage and eventual enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was a tough road.
What I want to share with you is this. You know you are going to look at a lot of the ADA stuff, and you are going to see — oh, you will see Justin Dart and all of these people with wheelchairs, you are going to see people climbing up the steps of the Capitol. You are going to see such dramatic things, and you know what you might believe? You might believe by looking at that the only people who were involved in this were folks in wheelchairs, and the only issue they cared about was bathrooms, and stairs, and doors and ramps. But I want you to know, there were a lot of other people involved in the movement. People who were deaf and had been deaf for generations. And then they had people like me, the recently hard of hearing. I remember when I first started, trying to become a leader in the disability community, I was criticized for not being disabled enough. I was criticized for not being deaf enough. I was criticized for not doing Sign Language.
Richard went to share his experiences in helping people get accommodations, Deaf and otherwise. While standing up for a Deaf employee who’s supervisor wouldn’t allow her an interpreter (she read lips too well) during a disability presentation Richard was giving at a big company earned him the respect of Deaf culture.
When the disability community first started with ADA, it was a very physical disability community. Sensory was not a big deal, except for blind. They didn’t think that retardation should be included. They didn’t think that mental illness should be included, or that learning disabilities should be included. And it was the deaf community that said, we need inclusiveness.
I want you to know right up there with all the folks getting all the photography going up the steps, there were a number of folks who were Deaf and folks like me, only hearingimpaired who helped put the ADA together. You folks are very much a part of that.
The deaf community, along with all the other communities in the disability field, helped put the rights together. And we didn’t do this together so we would have lawsuits. You know what we did ADA for? The simplest thing in the world. We did it so that people with disabilities could have a spontaneous life. You don’t have to call ahead to know that you can get somewhere, or that someone will be able to talk to you, or that you will have another way to communicate available to you. We want what so many people without disabilities take for granted the ability to have a spontaneous life. This really is all it comes down to. And we ended up in 1990 passing that.
Look for more of Richard’s work in a program he’s working on for parents of children with disabilities. He wants them to know a disability does not define anyone and that they too can be successful in today‘s world. He will start in the Boise area, where he lives, and wants to take it nationwide.
Who you are is important. Every decision that we make about anyone should not be based on what they have but who they are. Disability is not a 4 letter word. Recognizing a disability is important so everyone knows how to advocate for themselves. Tell people in a kind, positive and creative way what you need.
His final words to us was for children with disabilities but I believe it applies to us all:
The shortest distance between where a young person with a disability is and where they want to be is a road that is illuminated by their own dreams, not by the dreams that we have for them, no matter how much we know, no matter how much we care, and no matter how much we love them. Let us enable them to find their own dreams, their own music, and their own definition of success. That’s the best advice that I could give anyone who cares about someone with a disability. We didn’t work all of these years and I’m old now to help ourselves. We worked to help this new generation of young people with disabilities to live a spontaneous life.
He received a standing ovation from our attendees.