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In conversation with Richard Pimentel

Paul O’Connor (POC): Dr Richard Pimentel, welcome to Australia and thanks for talking to Comcare about 2015.

Richard Pimentel (RP): Oh thank you.  I’m having a wonderful time here and I enjoyed talking to your staff today.

POC: Richard, you’re described as an activist for disabled people, an author, a trainer – what’s the most important role out of all of those?

RP: I think my first role was an activist.  I came back from Vietnam disabled.  I looked around – this was in the early 70s – there were really no laws that protected people with disabilities.  They could be refused service at restaurants, hotels, schools were not accessible.  And I saw that the – my friends that I came back from Vietnam with, very disabled, we wanted to fight for the civil rights for people with disabilities.  It was an exciting time, civil rights for minorities, for women, for that, and we thought well, I think we should throw disability into the mix. And I went whole-heartedly to see just what is this about people with disabilities that makes them unique. And I’ve just been working in that ever since.  So I like my role as an activist.  Doesn’t mean I’m against employers.  In fact, part of my role as an activist, is to convince employers to be as excited about hiring people with disabilities as I was about getting hired.  

POC:  Hollywood made a movie about your experience – The Music Within.  The story of you and your very special relationship with Art Honneyman.  Tell me a little bit about how you learned through others and working with Art.  

RP:  I wasn’t disabled til I came back from Vietnam.  Art had had cerebral palsy and been disabled all of his life.  He knew far more than I did.  But I became friends with Art and I could communicate with him.  My hearing and his speech meshed together which was very odd.  And he was a brilliant man, his IQ was over my cholesterol level.  And what he taught me was a lesson that I still prize today.  It’s that when you first see someone with a disability, you see what they have, but if you stay with it long enough, you stop seeing what they have, and you start seeing who they are.  And the lesson is that everyone that we look at, and we see what they have, there’s somebody in there, and there’s someone in there worth knowing.  That’s the lesson that he taught to me, the life lesson that’s been the most important one to me.

POC: Supervisors and frontline managers are often confronted by the prospect of employing somebody with a disability.  Is that a normal reaction and what can we do to help them?

RP:  It’s absolutely a normal reaction.  Think about how we obtain our attitudes towards persons with disabilities.  Our own experience, how old were we when we first got an exposure to someone with a disability.  When we were children, if we go to the grocery store and we see someone with a disability and you’ve seen it, the child goes up to someone in a wheelchair and they go, ‘What’s the matter with you?’, you know, the mother grabs the child, apologises, we’re told don’t ever talk to anyone with a disability.  This is all of our common background.  

So when we become managers or supervisors or first line people, that fear may still be there. And stereotypes and beliefs – these things affect our decision-making.  And as long as we’re focusing on the disability rather than who they are and what they can do, then we’ll make, I think, mistakes in assuming that someone with a disability will be more trouble than they’re worth, or they won’t be productive, or they’ll be difficult to communicate with or get along with.  We need to change their minds about that.  Training helps.  Attitude training can be wonderful.  But candidly, the thing that changes their mind the most is when they actually work with someone with a disability and find that all their stereotypes were wrong.  And they get to have a relationship with a real person.  And then no more problem.

POC: One of the ideas you promote is to give job experience to university graduates, people with disability, so that people get accustomed to working with them.  In your experience, has that been a good idea?

RP: It’s been a fabulous idea.  If you go to the average manager and say ‘Well we have someone who’s blind and you know we’re considering hiring them’, all the manager knows is ‘someone who’s blind’, and can I talk to them, can I see them, do I have to lead them everywhere, what if I come up to them one day and say ‘Have you seen Jim around? Oh my god did I say that?  Of course you haven’t seen Jim, you can’t see can you?’  They fill themselves with all these unnecessary fears.  But if you actually give them someone who has a disability and they spend time with them, they learn to communicate with them, they see who they are, their fears go away.  And what’s wonderful is that the people that they spend this time with, maybe in a student intern, or job-shadowing – these people get hired by these companies because the companies say well ‘It’s not just a blind person, you know, that’s Jeff, I worked with him last month’.  And it’s been one of the best tools for getting young people with disabilities hired.  If we could get companies to more open up, to bring in student interns with disabilities, you would increase the number of people with disabilities that you employ dramatically and effectively.

POC:  Richard, do you think we’re better off employing people with disability?

RP:  Oh my.  Well of course.  First of all, I think any business worth anything at all, is going to have their employees reflect society as a whole.  It’s the whole point of diversity, isn’t it? And people with disabilities represent a significant part of society.  Also, people with disabilities – it’s been shown, statistically – that they’re as good or better employees than the other employees that you have.  And in studies that we’ve done in the US, we polled customers of companies that have people with disabilities who wait on them.  And the customers’ opinions of the companies who hired people with disabilities are higher because they hire people with disabilities.  So there’s no downside.  It’s just a matter of, do you want to hire a good candidate?  If you say I don’t want someone with a disability, you know what you’re doing?  You’re taking a whole class of people and you’re not considering them, and in that class may be the best employee you’ve ever had, so that will be the best employee you’ve ever lost.

POC:  So not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also the law in America?

RP:  Well it is the law.  The law doesn’t say you have to hire people with disabilities, I would be against such a law.  The law says you can’t discriminate against someone simply because they have a disability.  You must look at their abilities and what they can do in the workplace and make your decision on that.

POC: So focus on the ability, not the disability, is your message.

RP: Absolutely.  And the problem is, often in the hiring process, it lasts no longer than this focusing on the disability is.  You’ve got to make it last long enough to say, ‘Well I now know what you have, I’m going to make my hiring decision on who you are’, and stay with them for the time it takes to figure out who they are.

POC:  Richard, your advice to us at Comcare is that claims managers and case managers in the federal public sector can make well I now know what you have, I’m going to my hiring decision on who you are And stay with them for the time it takes to figure out who they are and case managers in the federal public sector can make a real difference in the healing of an injured worker.  How can that be?

RP:  Impairment can be physical or psychological.  We work with physical therapy and doctors to do that.  But the disabling process is not the same as impairment.  Disability is a point of view.  Disability is how you feel about yourself.  Disability is how others feel about you.  If everyone around says ‘Oh your life is over, you know, just sit at home and watch television’, then you’re going to be disabled.  Every contact that your claims people make, that your rehab people make, should be supportive.  ‘What can you still do?  You’re still a valuable person’.  You can have someone who’s impaired – very impaired – but they don’t consider themselves to be very disabled.  Because they know that they are worth something.  They know that they can do something.  You can make a bigger difference in someone being disabled as a doctor can make in someone being impaired.  It’s – we have to do both at the same time. And the claims people and the supervisors are the ones who are in the best position to keep an impairment from ever becoming a disability.  
POC:  Injured federal workers in the Comcare scheme tell us that they want to tell their story just once.  Is that a common experience that you’ve seen in the United States?

RP:  Yes, the – one of the great animosities in life is redundancy.  And people make them tell over and over and over again accidents, things like that.  You know, people want to but, sometimes you need for them to tell their story more than once.  You have to give them justification for it.  Why is this necessary?  What is it going to do for you? And then they’re more open to it.  Telling them ‘You have to do it because it’s the form and we have to fill it out’ won’t amuse them at all.  So, I think people are willing to do anything as long as you give them justification for it, and you show them respect.  It’s like when you go into the airport, you know, I have to show one person my ID and then three steps later, I have to show someone else my ID!  And I’m thinking ‘Did I change identities in the last two steps?  No.’ And then someone comes to me and says, you know something?  Redundancy is the key to security.  We know it’s frustrating, but it’s necessary.  I say, I can live with that. 

POC:  For people who’ve been harmed at the workplace, do we need to be thinking as employers, as Comcare, as case managers, rehabilitation experts, not to create needless disability in the processes that we impose on the workers?

RP: Absolutely.  One of the – one of my definitions of disability that I always cringe when I say it to an organisation like yours, but one of my definitions of disability is disability equals bureaucracy plus time.  The more time you spend at the bureaucracy, the more likely you are to be disabled.  And what I think that we need to do in a bureaucracy is to encourage people to think about what they can do.  It is a tragic truth that in any bureaucracy where you are giving people money or support or program – access to programs – that they have to meet certain criteria to get that.  We often make people justify to us that they are disabled.  And we make them do it over and over and over and over and over again.  Problem: the more you argue to someone about how disabled you are, the more disabled you become.  It would be nice if we could simply establish the credibility and establish the entitlement once, and then get them to think about how not disabled they are, rather than prove to us at every step that you’re worse than the last time we saw you.  Because that will make you disabled. 

POC: Language is important.  You tell us that we should be mindful of the words we use and what we write.  What does that mean for people who are trying to cope with change and challenge and disability?

RP: Language.  When I first started in college I took a lot of psychology.  And there was this belief they taught us that the way you change someone’s attitude, the way you change their behaviour, is to change their attitude, and then you’ll change their behaviour.  Interestingly enough, all the professors taught me that, but I never saw any instance of it working.  People who smoke know it kills them and they still smoke.  People who eat too many burgers know it’s killing them, they still eat them.  What I figured out later was you don’t change behaviour by changing attitudes, you change attitudes by changing behaviour.  And language is not attitude – language is behaviour.  The way you talk about something becomes the way you think about it.  The way you think about something becomes the actions that you do. 

As an example, what if I said kind of a fill in the blank.  Blank to a wheelchair.  What goes in there?  Well many people say well, confined to a wheelchair.  Or wheelchair blank.  Wheelchair bound.  Blank of cerebral palsy.  Well, victim of cerebral palsy.  And the language that we use is not descriptive of the disability.  I mean, someone who uses a wheelchair, I don’t know if you like to be in a wheelchair, but how do people who are ‘bound’ feel?  Probably not very well.  How do people who are ‘confined’ feel?  Not good.  Do you want to have lunch with a victim?  No I don’t think I want to have lunch with a victim. Would you like to hire a sufferer?  No I don’t want to hire a sufferer.  So when we put these words on disability, then they not only affect us in the way that we hire, but if I’m a person with a disability, and I consider myself to be a victim, a sufferer, bound – then I’m going to think less of me than I really should. And so we need to consider the language we use when we talk about people, because language isn’t attitude, language is behaviour.  The way you talk about someone is the way you treat them.

POC:  Richard, return to work, you tell us, is not just about the medical aspects, the clinical treatment, but it’s also about getting the incentives right.  How does that work?

RP: Well, one of the issues with return to work as far as incentives, is that – one, there’s the employer incentives where employers need to create incentives in the workplace so that their managers, first liners, are able to put people back to work and be rewarded.  But the main incentive of coming back to work for a worker is that we are wrapped up as work as our identity.  When we meet someone, what’s the first thing we ask?  ‘What do you do?’ You know, I have a step-daughter that dated and she brought a young man home and I said to him ‘What do you do?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘About what?’ I threw him out of the house.  Anyway. 

But if we live in a world where if you don’t do something you aren’t anything, and people who are injured not only have lost a physical ability to do something, but they lose their identity.  And when you lose your identity, you can go downhill very quickly.  The incentive is to stay who you are, to keep your identity, to have the incentive to be able to take care of your family and still be who you are.  Work isn’t just a place you get a pay cheque.  It’s your social network.  It’s your friends.  It’s your family.  It’s – many people talk to their friends at work more than they do their own family when they get home.

POC: Your message to the Comcare community in your visit here to Australia is that we need to get people back to work who’ve been harmed, much faster and deal them in and get them involved.  That’s important?

RP:  Oh it’s vitally important.  Return to work – if it’s anything it’s always time-sensitive. You’ve got a process that was absolutely necessary to put in.  Employers were not taking people back to work in Australia.  You had to get tough and put in a process, and almost coerce them to do it, walk them through it.  And you’ve done a marvellous job doing that.  Employers now are realising, well maybe this works, maybe it’s a good idea.  And then employers are saying, we think we can get people back to work a lot faster if this bureaucracy wasn’t in the way. 

So at some point you say well, we got them to this point, now what we want to do is not wait 30 days or 60 days and do a huge evaluation to determine whether someone’s suitable to go back to work.  The average employee that can go back to work can go back to work doing something within a week of their injury.  Let’s put them in now.  Let’s put them in in that week.  And then your system which is so protective – rightfully so – of injured workers, can kick in that week and start doing all of this analysis while they are working – working their way back up to do their full job.  That way you’ve got the employers who meet their needs to save money, you’ve got the people with disabilities who are protected by the evidence-based treatment that is so very important in your system, and you have the government who’s in partnership with the employers, rather than being at odds with the employer, to do what everyone knows that they should do.  Maybe I’m just a simple American but it works for me.

POC:  Richard, you’ve done a lot of work in the United States, and in fact across North America, with older workers.  How do we promote a longer life in work in the federal sector?

RP:  The baby boom generation.  The post World War II generation.  Largest generation in history.  We currently – US, Canada, Australia – oldest workforce we have ever had.  Do you know that the average physical job that we are doing was originally designed for about a 25 to a 30 year old to do?  Yet the average worker in our workforce now is closer to 44, 45?  Have you ever seen what happens to a worker from age 40 to 50?  You lose cardio-vascular, you lose muscle tone, you lose lateral movement, you lose balance. And what we need to do to keep these workers working is not to wait til they get injured, and then go fix the job for them.  What we need to do is do what I call ‘geriatric ergonomics’.  Go into these jobs that were designed for a 30 year old and re-design them for the proper age.  If the average worker is 45 to 50 years old, re-design these jobs so a 50-year-old can do it, can do it safely, not just for the impact traumatic injury, but for the long-term progressive injury too.  And start re-tooling these jobs and redefining these jobs so that the older workforce can continue to do that.

Keeping them healthy is a very important thing.  And please, when they’re injured, get them back to work soonest.  Because if you think a young person who’s injured who stays off for 60 days has a hard time getting back, an older worker that’s injured who stays off for 60 days may never come back.  So the immediacy, importance of the immediacy of return to work for an older worker, is even more vital than it is for your average worker.

POC:  In the United States, you’ve done a lot of work with the veteran community.  What have you learnt about the transition of seriously wounded soldiers and transitioning them back to civilian employment?

RP:  When you first leave civilian life and go to become a soldier, they take all of these civilian tools you have – the ability to have empathy, develop relationships, think before you act – and they erase them.  It’s like refurbishing furniture, they sand it all down.  And they replace it with combat skills, such as not establishing emotional ties to people because they might die, acting before you think, rather than trusting people, being paranoid, hyper-vigilant.  These are wonderful skills when you’re in combat; they keep you alive.  These same skills when you bring them back to the workplace, disrupt you.  They get you fired.  They cause you to act oddly.  And it takes – even with a veteran who isn’t disabled – it can take 90 days, 120 days to be able to exchange those combat skills back for the civilian skills.  And for those who can do it, that’s great, for those who don’t, they become lost souls. 

And one of the things I find is that we have not trained the people they’re coming back to.  We’ve only trained the soldiers.  ‘Here’s what to expect’, ‘Here’s what to do’, ‘It’s your responsibility to get well’.  Why don’t we bring the families together and tell them what to expect when this person comes home?  Why don’t we tell them that they’re very short and impatient, that they shouldn’t take this personally?  Why don’t we tell employers that the worker you bring back might not react well to changes in the workplace?  And you’ll have to work with them for a while before it gets right.  Many employers are willing to take veterans back – as long as it’s all going right.  But as soon as there’s the least little problem, they just throw their hands up and say ‘I can’t do it’.  And so these veterans aren’t doing very well. 

In the US, I’ll give you a tragic, a very tragic figure: We’ve had approximately six thousand casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan in the US.  We’ve had an equal number of soldiers come back and commit suicide, because they can’t adapt and adjust.  So where – where’s the most dangerous, hostile environment?  Is it Baghdad or is it New York?  And so we need to create a place that’s patient and safe and understanding so they can literally get back into the flow of being a civilian.  They didn’t become a soldier overnight; they won’t become a civilian overnight either.  They have basic training – you know what they don’t have?  Basic untraining.  One of the things I would say to any employer who might be looking at this is this: Your government will bring these troops back.  But only you can bring them home.  The government can’t bring them home – you can bring them home. 

POC:  And what about the special problem of the mental health, unwellness, the problems that many of these returned, seriously wounded soldiers are trying to – wounded in the mental sense as much as the physical?

RP:  PTSD, we have record numbers of PTSD coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Four times as much PTSD percentage-wise as came back from Vietnam.  There are ways to deal with PTSD, training employers, anniversary dates, knowing that someone on an anniversary date, if something terrible, might not be doing so well.  They might be more easily distracted.  They might be risk-takers when they come back.  There are things that employers can do if they know the problems the veteran’s going to have, to work with that as an accommodation until they work it out themselves. 

Now with a physical mental problem such as a traumatic brain injury – traumatic brain injuries, really we didn’t hear about in World War II or Vietnam.  Not that we didn’t have them but no-one lived through them. Now we have great medicine and you’re having troops come back with all these traumatic brain injuries which can cause memory loss, some physical coordination, easily distracted, inability to stay on task.  You might say well, why would I want an employee that way?  There are accommodations that allow these people to do the job and then they work through it. 

Let me give myself as an example.  I came back from Vietnam with a traumatic brain injury.  I was told that I wouldn’t be able to work.  I was told that I was not a fit candidate for university studies.  OK?  I’ve been working ever since and I’m now addressed as Doctor Pimentel.  So, what you think about a condition is not as important as what you think about the person who has the condition.  They knew my condition; they didn’t know me.  And so let’s not make decisions about the conditions that these soldiers are coming back with – let’s make decisions about who these soldiers are.  They’ve overcome much – they can overcome this.

POC:  Richard, you’ve talked about workplace bullying with us during your time at Comcare, visiting with our people and visiting with members of the Comcare community.  How bad is this problem and what can we do to tackle the big problem of workplace bullying? 

RP:  It’s becoming more and more a serious problem.  It’s the, it’s the new civil rights, you know, protection.  Bullies destroy the best employees you have in the workplace.  Bullies target people who don’t have the skills – who have skills that they don’t have.  So they’re going to target the competent ones, and they’re going to make you think they’re incompetent so they can destroy them.  What we need to do, well you could say well let’s make a law against it, let’s put them in jail, let’s fine the employer, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Well that only works after the damage has been done. 

What every company needs to do is have a meeting with every single one of their employees and explain what workplace bullying really is.  How the bully does it.  How the bully recruits other people to help them do it.  What lies the bully tells to their own supervisors to make it justifiable to hurt this person.  How the bully makes the person that they’re bullying believe it’s not happening, or even worse, that it’s their fault.  Bullies in the workplace are cockroaches, and the way you get rid of a cockroach is to turn on the light. 

If we shine a light on what these bullies do and then we empower everyone in the workplace.  If you’re being bullied, it’s not your imagination, it’s really happening.  If a bully asks you to help them bully someone – and they do – don’t do it.  If you’re observing someone bully but you don’t want to say anything because you’re afraid you’ll be the next one – say something.  Tell the person being bullied that it’s really happening to them, it’s not their imagination.  And if we all take responsibility – not just to not bully – but if we take responsibility to have a bully-free environment and top management supports your actions in this, you can stop bullying overnight.  You really can. If the people feel – if they’re knowledgeable enough to recognise it when they see it, and they feel empowered enough to do something about it when they know about it.

POC:  So we need to create an environment where it’s safe for people to speak up and stop the bully?

RP:  Absolutely.  Because most people who don’t say anything are afraid that they won’t be believed, and that the bully will find out, and that they will be the next person being bullied, and it becomes a terrible cycle.  But you can stop it now by just being open, explaining the psychological dynamics and the management dynamics of bullying.  Here’s something you didn’t know about bullies – bullies in the workplace are exactly like bullies in school.  They’re cowards.  All bullies are cowards.  And if you take all their armament away from them, they don’t have enough nerve to do it alone.  Take – take everyone away from them, and the average bully will not have enough nerve to do anything at all to anyone.

POC:  What can senior leaders be doing to – often they’re blind – so how can they create the right environment and what could they be doing by their own actions to stamp this out?

RP: Strong statement that it will not be tolerated.  Training people so they really know what it looks like.  Bullying is not throwing a pastry at someone when they come in late to a meeting.  Bullying is telling them the meeting is at 9 o’clock when it’s really at 8 o’clock and then chastising them for being an hour late.  Bullying can be very subtle.  And so what senior management needs to do – bullies tend to go to senior and middle management to say ‘Well, this person’s very weak, you know, we’ve got to get them out of here, and you know…’ And what the management has to do is say, ‘Is this really true?  Or am I being set up to be someone helping a bully?’  And so you have to say, what is really, what is really happening here. 

And what senior management has to do is if someone comes in and says ‘I’m being bullied’, please take it seriously.  If a co-worker comes in and says, ‘This person is bullying this person’, take it seriously.  Find out the facts.  If you think you’re being bullied, keep a diary.  Everything that happens, everything that’s said.  Keep a diary so you have something to say.  Some of this bullying can be very very subtle, and very hard to prove.  The worst bullies are the ones who do it so cleverly that they almost leave no trail at all.  That’s why to make it a crime doesn’t work.  Because the only people who get caught there are doing – they’re doing blatant things physically and loudly and that.  The danger is bullies are right under the radar.

POC:  So we have to, as senior leaders, encourage people to speak up and to have the conversation and confront what’s really happening at the workplace? 

RP:  Absolutely.  And train them so that they – just like you train someone to recognise a safety hazard – you train someone to recognise bullying when it’s happening. 

POC:  Dr Richard Pimentel, thanks for coming to Australia, thanks for sharing your experience, and thanks for your service to communities around the world to make a real difference.

RP:  Thank you.  Thank you for having me. 
Page last updated: 04 Nov 2013