As we mark National Disability Independence Day, we celebrate colleagues and others who overcome challenges in and out of the office. Distance runner Gary Pinder, who lives with multiple sclerosis (MS), credits a work environment that helps him thrive on the job—and on the racecourse.
Speed, risk-taking, adaptability, collaboration—MITRE celebrates the traits that drive our pursuit of a safer world, wherever we can find them. Our culture of belonging accommodates people of all abilities who fight to make a better world in and out of the office, including those with invisible disabilities, like Gary Pinder.
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Pinder, a project leader and information systems engineer, supports the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, helping design and protect the country’s currency. He’s also a leader, organizer, and advocate for Run a Myelin My Shoes (RAMMS), an organization dedicated to supporting runners with multiple sclerosis, or MS—runners such as Gary Pinder.
Adapting to Life with Limitations
MS, an autoimmune disorder, attacks the central nervous system, damaging the nerves’ insulating outer layer, a substance known as myelin. MS’s symptoms can vary widely in type and intensity—from loss of physical function, muscle spasms, and fatigue to cognitive delays and memory problems.
“I have what’s called relapsing and remitting MS,” Pinder explains, “which means I go through periods when I lose functions, and after a few months I’ll recover and be close to normal. Others, when they lose functions, that becomes permanent for them.”
When symptoms started, Pinder was a 30-year-old graduate student, newly married, and dreaming of a career in finance. He began to struggle with double vision. The university clinic sent him to an ophthalmologist, who scheduled an MRI. On the images, doctors saw brain lesions consistent with MS.
As MS variants go, Pinder says he got one of the more manageable ones. Many with MS struggle with significant cognitive impairments or rely on canes or wheelchairs for mobility. Approaching 60, and almost three decades after his diagnosis, Pinder can still work, walk, play, and run.
“Heat is my kryptonite,” Pinder explains. “It robs me of my energy and makes all the other, usually hidden MS symptoms significantly worse.”
At MITRE, I’ve been able to create a solid work-life balance, so there has been less for my immune system to react to.
Creating A Life at MITRE
When he joined MITRE, Pinder’s symptoms were in remission, but he soon faced a challenge. While leading a project to make American currency more accessible to the visually impaired, he felt the familiar tingling that accompanies the onset of a relapse. His usually sharp analytical mind slowed, just as he was preparing to do interviews and product tests across the country.
Knowing the heat in locations like Orlando, Florida, and St. Louis could exacerbate his condition, he gathered his team, told them about his diagnosis, and asked them to be extra thorough when reviewing his analyses. Pinder also turned the leadership of sessions in warmer locations over to colleagues. The team delivered the project, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is using their work in designing future bank notes.
From junior employees to group and project leads, MITRE staff were always there when needed to help, Pinder says. MITRE also supports him in finding ways to adapt, like allowing him to work from the heavily air-conditioned basement of his home rather than the office. When necessary, he defers verbal presentation duties to a team member and instead focuses on written and analytical efforts, where he can take more time to process information.
Taking on MS with a Warrior Spirit
In 2003, after recovering from a particularly bad attack where he temporarily lost all physical functions in his left side, Pinder received a suggestion from a friend: run the LVMC Run to Read half-marathon in West Virginia. He completed it in three hours and hasn’t stopped running since. He can now run half-marathons in very cold weather in under two hours.
“Achieving something that many healthy people wouldn't consider doing,” he explains, “is my way of saying to the disease, ‘No. You can’t stop me. I can still do this.’”
In 2017 Pinder met Cheryl Hile, a fellow marathoner with MS who started the RAMMS organization. RAMMS teams meet once a year at a marathon to spread awareness and encourage others with MS to never give up. Pinder was an early champion and advocate, helping organize events for athletes and their supporters.
Kerry Buckley, Ph.D., vice president of MITRE’s Center for Integrated Transportation and director of the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, joined RAMMS for its first marathon in Detroit. She’s since run with the RAMMS team at marathons in Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore.
“I’ve run with Gary and other MS warriors for several years, and it has been an incredible experience and inspiration to run side-by-side with these warriors and to hear their stories,” Buckley says.
This year, however, while Buckley and other MITRE employees are lacing up their shoes for RAMMS events in Columbus, Ohio, and Reykjavik, Iceland, Pinder will be half a world away trekking through New Zealand, on a graduation trip with his son.
He credits the professional support he gets for helping him reach his personal goals. “At MITRE, I’ve been able to create a solid work-life balance, so there has been less for my immune system to react to.”
He notes, “On the morning each of my kids was born, I promised I’d walk into their high school graduations unassisted. Now they’ve both graduated college, and I have new milestones in their lives I want to make it to without any assistance.”
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