After dedicating much of his three years at the University of Michigan to telling his story and working in disability advocacy, LSA senior Vincent Pinti has been awarded this year’s James T. Neubacher Award, a recognition reserved for University affiliates.
The award is named after Neubacher, a University alum and journalist for the Detroit Free Press, who wrote a nationally recognized column called “Disabled in Detroit” shortly after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1979.
Pinti is the first undergraduate to win in recent years and was awarded in recognition of his work through Central Student Government to improve the accessibility for students with disabilities on campus. Students at the University have long struggled to receive appropriate disability accommodations with their departments and Services for Students with Disabilities, claiming confusing and time-consuming processes that hindered their ability to receive accommodations.
After facing some challenges with accessibility and accommodations during his first year on campus, Pinti dedicated himself to ensuring no student with a disability has to suffer through what he did. Pinti said he has spinal-muscular atrophy, which means he uses a wheelchair and was born into what he called a “disabled world.”
“I’ve always felt the need to advocate because there are so many people that have disabilities,but for whatever reason might not be able to share their lived experience and might not be able to share the adversity that they have to go through to get the resources that they need,” Pinti said.
The Neubacher Award is presented annually during Disability Community Month. The project Pinti is being recognized for is his work creating the Personal Assistant/Personal Care Assistant (PA/PCA) scholarship program.
PA/PCAs help people with chronic illness or disabilities meet their daily mental and physical health needs. This scholarship, sponsored by CSG, internally provides educational funding for students working in this field. Pinti said there is a dire need for people working in these positions due to understaffing in the field.
“It’s hard work, oftentimes manual labor, and there’s not a lot of demand for it because they don’t get compensated very much at all from the state, so the students are going above and beyond by doing this,” Pinti said. “That’s why I decided to build this scholarship.”
Pinti has also been involved in numerous other initiatives on campus, such as pushing for metal straws in the dining halls, ensuring environmental anti-plastic initiatives don’t impact disabled students on campus and helping design more accessible emergency procedures in campus buildings. He is also currently working on developing a PA/PCA database of student workers to address the caregiver shortage in Michigan.
“Students can play a role in this, U of M can play a role in building this database,” Pinti said. “So I would just give a call to action that U of M needs to build the PCA database now.”
Stephanie Rosen, chair of the Council of Disability Concerns, said the award honors those advocating on behalf of disabled individuals just as Neubacher did.
“He was an advocate for truth, access for himself, and for the broader disability communities,” Rosen said. “This award was named in his honor, as a memorial to his work and to recognize work that carries on that legacy.”
Ashley Wiseman, co-chair of Disability Culture at U-M, a group that aims to provide support for community members with disabilities, nominated Pinti for the award. Wiseman said she nominated Pinti because he is doing phenomenal work in creating systematic inclusion and that his style of advocacy helps extend it beyond the disability community.
“He’s a human rights advocate, although I don’t know if he would use those words to describe himself,” Wiseman said. “I’ve observed him advocating for a number of social issues, and he accounts for a range of experiences in the work that he does … He’s very humble and very willing to listen and learn.”
To Pinti, winning this award came as a bit of a surprise, but meant his story was being told and his work recognized.
“A lot of the work that I do is fundamentally connected with my story and the adversity that I experienced in my first year, and a lot of that adversity was born out of people not knowing, not knowing what I needed, not knowing how to support me,” Pinti said. “(The University) knows that they can play a fundamental role … and how doable it is to support someone with the amount of need that I have.”
Rosen said the Neubacher Award is critical to furthering disability justice on campus because it is the only award of its kind at the University.
“A lot of times, disability advocacy is self-advocacy,” Rosen said. “It is (one of) exchanges: educating one’s colleagues, advocating for one’s own access, in a lot of places and situations that are not very public. One part of why this award is important is because that more private, behind the scenes, advocacy has a huge impact in changing the culture on campus, educating individuals and making changes to processes. And it’s only through those sort of small, individual, private acts that we move towards greater collective awareness.”
Pinti said he believes recognition of his work and of disability advocacy as a whole is critical in order to increase access to higher education for people with disabilities.
“It shows to those people looking at coming to Michigan, looking at going to college, that this is a place that’s going to support them,” Pinti said. “Which I think is really, really critical for people that have been certainly overlooked by society.”
Daily Staff Reporter Paige Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.