Héctor Ramirez has held many titles throughout their life. They have been the chair of the Access for All Underserved Cultural Communities at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and they serve on the board of Disability Rights California, the largest protection and advocacy group (P&A) in the country. They serve as an advisor to the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research team on their Home and Community-Based Services Participant Council. They are Chiricahua Apache and Mexican. But they say the identity they embrace most readily is that of “a disabled person.”
Ramirez has autism and is hard of hearing. They also have a mental health condition. They lived in an institution for their early life and were initially excited to assimilate when they began living on their own. They found the most comfort in their Native community, where they feel most accepted for their full self. “As a Native person, we have the conversation about multigenerational trauma, but we also have multigenerational resilience,” they say. “I’ve never felt unwelcome. Recognizing that is really fantastic, especially when I go back into the real world, which is everywhere. Disability is one of our most shared identities. I find myself focusing the work that I do around trying to apply the disability frame. How does this (issue) impact communities of color, like the one that I come from, and disability communities?”
Disability is one of our most shared identities. I find myself focusing the work that I do around trying to apply the disability frame. 'How does this (issue) impact communities of color, like the one that I come from, and disability communities'?Héctor Manuel Ramírez
In their work at Disability Rights California, Ramirez focuses on the intersection between disability advocacy, equity, and intersectionality. The P&A network traditionally focuses on voting rights, employment, advocacy, education, and independent living, but during the pandemic, all issues related to COVID-19 became focal areas. In California and nationwide, this meant vaccine equity, even as systemic issues with independent living and food security were exacerbated. Ramirez volunteered to be part of the vaccine trials. They say as a person with a disability, they felt more equipped to deal with potentially harmful side effects than a person without a disability. The downside of that attitude, they say, is the internalized ableism associated with feeling like they have less to lose by going through the vaccine trials. However, they felt the need to volunteer because the pandemic “changed the landscape” for the disability community. They noted that the pandemic severely impacted the disability community, which experienced high rates of death directly and indirectly related to COVID-19. In fact, Ramirez and 20 people in their family contracted COVID-19 and seven of them died, including their younger brother. But because of the pandemic, they say many people without disabilities have begun to experience mental health challenges they’ve never felt before. They hope that gives nondisabled people an appreciation for the way people with disabilities can cope with change.
“All of us with disabilities have to prioritize issues, and if so-called normal people realized the juggling that we have to do to exist, maybe they would have better respect,” they say. “In Native communities, this is recognized. It’s not inspiration porn, but it’s recognizing that we have a better ability to adapt and keep going. We can model that and share that gift with others.” They try to build bridges by focusing on community engagement, which began during their time teaching high school at the beginning of their career. Ramirez believes that as the students began to take on challenges more independently, regardless of their disability status, Ramirez feels the guidance they offered was useful to the students.
“You know that old saying, ‘Pass the torch?’” they ask. “I’m not giving my torch to anybody. I’ll use it to light other people’s torches, but I’m not giving up. But even if my flame goes out, there are a lot of flames out there.
You know that old saying, ‘Pass the torch?' I’m not giving my torch to anybody. I’ll use it to light other people’s torches, but I’m not giving up. But even if my flame goes out, there are a lot of flames out there.Héctor Manuel Ramírez
Their experience with COVID-19 prompted Ramirez to think about their future goals. After putting aside their dreams of going to law school years ago after being denied accommodations to take their entrance exams, they want to try again to become a lawyer. Outside of their career goals, they are family-centered and driven. “Family is the most important thing for me,” they say. Ramirez started a gratitude sheet on a Word document to help their mental health as the pandemic raged. “At first, I couldn’t think of anything to put on it. Now, it’s, like, 60 pages long.”
Ramirez helps their sister to care for their niece and nephew, who are 2 years old and 3 years old, respectively. They wants to do everything they can to make sure the children thrive. Ultimately, they want to offer a better and more inclusive future.