Today, we’re talking with a man who was pronounced dead at birth, diagnosed as retarded by his guidance counselor, and never spoke a word until he was 6 years old. Additionally, he had a documentary made about him in in 2007 called “Music Within”. Our guest this week, Richard Pimentel, Veteran advocate and speaker, has overcome tremendous odds and Keith and I are honored to have him on our show.
A disability rights advocate and public speaker, Richard was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. Pronounced dead at birth, his mother, who had gone through several miscarriages, struggled to cope with raising him. Shortly after he was born, she released him to the care of an orphanage where he stayed until his Grandmother found him. However, by the time she was able to locate him, he had adapted to the culture of the orphanage. This culture was one in which children were expected to be neither seen nor heard. It was partially due to this, and the rest Richard credits to stubbornness, that he remained voluntarily mute until he was six years old.
While he was sent to a special needs classroom because of this , Richard reiterates that remaining non-verbal wasn’t a disability but a choice. It was because of his experience in this situation that he grew close to the students. They were his friends, and he was able to see how they were treated.
When people give their sympathy regarding Richard’s backstory, he’s quick to point out that it was all, in fact, a blessing. “Hard things in life give you keys to open doors, and it gives these keys because they’re doors you’ll absolutely need to open at some point.” Out of this, he grew up to become and advocate for this disabled.
It wasn’t until later in life that Richard himself faced disability. Unable to afford to go to college, he went to Vietnam so that he could use the GI bill to finish his education. While there, his 5 man special team and another troop found themselves in enemy territory and trapped for months. Finally, they received the call that it was their chance to get to an extraction point. Relief turned to dismay when this news was followed by the order that 5 would have to stay behind to distract the enemy. The 5 chosen were, of course, his team.
A defining moment in his life, his troop leader told them what he said was the real definition of responsibility- “It’s not what you owe the country, or your teammates. It’s your ability. Given the ability we have to slow the enemy down, what then is our response? Tell me, what’s your response to this ability?”
Moving on in our conversation towards the meaning of leadership, responsibility, and attitude, Keith, posed the question – “When I first heard your story about the real definition of responsibility, that is, your ability to respond to a situation, how is it that you see your responsibility or how you’re helping employers take on their responsibility as it applies to taking in qualified veterans into the workforce?”
Richard’s response comes, of course, from his experience. Coming back from Vietnam, Richard had severe hearing loss and a traumatic brain injury. Knowing that his fellow veterans were also coping with these disabilities, he became involved with the movement to get the Veterans With Disabilities Act passed.
Richard’s passion was fueled by the training ingrained into him…”You never leave a fallen comrade behind. Ever.”
It occurred to him that he was seeing more fallen soldiers on Main Street than in Vietnam. “If I wouldn’t leave them behind in ‘nam, why would I leave them behind now?”
With this thought in his mind, he then went on to develop programs to help bring veterans back into the workforce. In his development of these programs, he realized that employers don’t hate the disabled, they just don’t understand them. “I didn’t need to change employers minds about people with disabilities, I needed to change their minds about themselves.”
If it’s an issue with PTSD, the second most common issue versus a traumatic brain injury, the average employer is skittish because they don’t understand these issues. So, Richard has taken on the mantle of teaching them what they need to do to accommodate workers with these issues. After giving them materials and training, he leaves them feeling more confident in their own ability to work with the disabled.
Richard points out that accommodating workers with these types of injuries can be as simple as being available to talk, letting them know that you want them to talk to you about what they’re going through, and that it’s a safe space. Something as simple as a worker being able to tell you that they have an anniversary coming up where they lost men and don’t necessarily work well during that week, and then being able to work something out, can make all the difference.
Richard leaves us with this thought- the disability community has been more fearful about an economy like the one we have today than one where there weren’t any jobs. What they want everyone to know is that they want you to be as picky hiring them as you would be if there wasn’t a labor shortage.
It doesn’t make any sense to hire someone just because they’re there. Don’t hire them because of what they did over there or what they did for America. Hire them for what they’re going to do for your company.
I agree wholeheartedly with his closing statement, “The government can bring us back, but only you can bring us home.”