Editor’s note: Vicki Dalle Molle introduced Pete Feigal at the Charlie Smith Awards on Nov. 7. Her comments are excerpted below.
Sometimes when Pete introduces himself or is asked for his “credentials,” he says that all his degrees are “honorary.” Yet he is a highly respected inspirational speaker, gifted writer, acclaimed artist and a prominent advocate for persons with disabilities.
Pete has struggled with mental illness since he was 12. He has been living with multiple sclerosis for the past 18 years. He’s lived through the unimaginable, such as when he was in a closed mental health unit for a year at age 15. Pete’s been homeless, suicidal, unemployed. Shamed by his mental illness, Pete became estranged from his family and community, left home and did not return for 20 years.
But after years of struggle, Pete began to see his hardships in a new way. His life became “a gift to be opened, not a problem to be solved.” He used adversity as his teacher; hope as his mentor.
The first time I heard him speak, I had arranged for Pete to present at the Mayo Clinic grand rounds. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the place Pete received mental health “treatment” as a 15-year-old.
In his presentation, Pete described just enough of his stay on the unit for the audience to have an understanding of what it was like for an adolescent to be removed from his family, shut off from friends and his community, and made to feel ashamed of who he was.
And then he began to tell us a story of little kindnesses that formed the good memories of his stay: of the people on that unit who saved him, like the janitor who had a small cart of books which Pete could borrow from. These were the people who didn’t forget that the kids on the unit were kids, who knew they should be treated as normal kids would want to be treated. The janitor, and others like her, understood that the kids weren’t to be blamed or shamed, identified solely on the basis of their illness. They needed to be loved, valued and recognized as people.
And so, in this way, all the medical professionals in the room that day got the very clear message from Pete, in a passionate but non-threatening way: “Hey! Wake up, get with it! People with disabilities are people first.” Look past the illness and see the person.
Since that time I think I’ve heard Pete give at least 200 of the 1,600-plus presentations he’s made in the last eight years. He works his magic every time, regardless of the audience. Everyone leaves feeling a little kinder, with their hearts a little softer toward others who have struggled with life. They take away with them three of Pete’s key messages:
First, whatever happens in life, treat it as a gift, not a problem. Second, focus on and celebrate your strengths. And third, don’t let others define who you are by your disability.
Pete’s presentations are valuable for other things too. One of the most significant ways Pete has been instrumental in the disability community is that he has helped countless people find their voice.
One of Pete’s passions in life is advocacy. He stomps on stigma and salutes individual strengths every time he opens his mouth. Pete uses his life experiences to educate people across the country on what life is like for people with mental illness and other disabilities. His message of hope, determination, opportunity and possibility has encouraged thousands to tell their stories.
I’m one person who found her voice through Pete’s example. He made me realize that that I have a responsibility to share my story and those of my family members, to stand proud—not embarrassed—to be fearless in my path. We are to be proud of who we are.