Winter 2007


Documenting the Challenges of Disability


Victor Pineda, BS 03, an alumnus with a severe disability, has made access for the people with disabilities his life's work. On December 26, 2004, he experienced first-hand the difficulties of disabled people in times of disaster in Thailand, where he was holding a workshop on disability and economic development when the Tsunami struck. Below he recounts some of those experiences and his plans for the future.


In addition, Pineda has begun to document the lives of disabled people in the US and abroad through a series of short documentaries. His first, "In Cuba, Disabled," highlights the challenges of people with disabilities in Cuba. His latest innovation was establishing The Victor Pineda Foundation to create educational documentaries on disability by people with disabilities. To view Pineda's films, please visit


In November 2006, Pineda received a Jefferson Award for public service. Jefferson Awards recipients are selected for doing extraordinary things without expectation of recognition or reward. Cesar Chavez, Jimmy Carter, Walter Chronkite, and Colin Powell have all been recipients of the award.

Pineda holds a dual degree with a BS in business administration and a BA in Political Economy of Industrial Societies as well as a Master's in City Planning, all from UC Berkeley. While at Cal he co-founded a new student group, the Disabled Students Union, served in the Residence Hall Assembly, and was elected an ASUC senator.


Ms. Sawala sways gently in a hammock. No one sees or hears her. She is 26 and non-verbal, living with her family at the entrance to a Thai national park, where her mother sells food to tourists. Ms. Sawala never leaves her hammock, but as I approached with my wheelchair, she began to smile and laugh and make sounds to her mother.


My condition, spinal muscular atrophy, is similar to Ms. Sawala as it severely limits my physical mobility. I sometimes forget, and the 22 countries I have visited since starting at Cal oftentimes seem like a dream. My travel and research granted me insights into economic growth, as well as its social repercussions. More than that, it unlocked my drive to make a difference.


I was in Thailand on December 26th, 2004, holding a workshop on disability and economic development when the Tsunami struck. It killed 5,500 people and destroyed over 6,000 homes there. In a policy piece I developed for the United Nations, I explore redevelopment in post-tsunami Thailand from a disability perspective. It highlights discrimination, acceptance, education, and employment. This short documentary has become a valuable tool for education and health professionals. I am adapting it to help Katrina-affected areas.


Around the world, people with disabilities are either aborted or abandoned. Facing systematic exclusion from health and education, their prospects are dim. In my films I engage people with positive examples, role models who live their lives like regular people. Some may not have an arm, but have life. Others can't see or speak but have vision and demand to be heard. I connect economic opportunities and social struggles. I work to change perceptions, and transform lives. However, this struggle is great.


Economic development is ultimately about empowerment and freedom. Poverty is a way of life for the estimated 600 million people that live with disabilities. Almost 40% of all children out of school are children with disabilities. Social stigma relegates us to the margins, we are human capital that's irrationally undervalued.


I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, but have been a child of California for over 20 years. Cal brought the world to me literally. Cuba, Thailand, and Bosnia all became objects of exploration and subjects of my award-winning films, and have attracted attention to my non-profit, The Disability Media Institute.


My social change media ventures have lead to collaborative projects with large institutions like the UN and World Bank, and to the birth of a new foundation. The Victor Pineda Foundation empowers youth with disabilities by providing a media training and technology education center. I partnered with Public Interest TV Films and others to establish our country's first inclusive media center, this has since grown to become the national Disability Media Institute. The films produced by the Disability Media Institute aim to inspire, educate, and inform a global audience on the human condition, and share a new spectrum from which we can view ourselves.


I see my goal as bringing dignity to disability. It will touch all of us, at some point we each face limitations or constraints. At Haas I was surrounded by a talented and supportive network of faculty and friends who gave me tools that millions of others lack.


I then committed myself to share the privileges I have and to do so by exploring a variety of life's rewards and challenges through documentary film. I now embark on a journey to build a lasting social venture that can exist in the nexus between knowledge and action. My foundation shares my insights into success and determination. California and Berkeley have given me strength and allowed me to develop my unique abilities. Today I work to secure those same liberties for others.

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Victor Pineda, BS 03
Victor Pineda, BS 03