Hometown Heroes: Linda Quintanilha fights for accessibility, dignity

By BILL FONDA

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 05-29-2023 7:56 AM

When Linda Quintanilha’s daughter Mary was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at age 2 after not hitting her milestones, she attended training from the University of New Hampshire’s New Hampshire Leadership Series, which provides information and strategies related to people with disabilities and their families.

However, Quintanilha said she felt shame and anger for initially thinking Mary needed to be “fixed.”

“I was in all of this to give Mary a normal life, but I learned that Mary is normal and I’m not,” she said. “There was a lot of self-work on what ableism is. It just changed my whole mindset.”

Mary is now 18, and graduated from ConVal High School last year. She is non-verbal, and will be receiving services at the school until she is 22. She has also worked as an intern at Belletetes.

“She’s such a great kid, so funny,” Quintanilha said.

Quintanilha’s older daughter, Clara, is 22, and just graduated from Wheaton College with a physics degree. She will be spending the summer at California Institute of Technology with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory before finishing a degree in engineering at Dartmouth.

Her younger son Charlie is 17 and also on the autism spectrum. He graduates from ConVal this spring, and will be attending Wheaton in the fall.

“He’s a brilliant kid, very determined and lots of fun,” she said.

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For the work Quintanilha, a Bennington resident who is general manager of Waterhouse Restaurant in Peterborough, has done advocating for Mary and others with disabilities, she is the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript’s Hometown Hero for May, having been nominated by her “very proud” mother, Janet Kane.

‘I know she’s smart’

The ConVal School District originally wanted to send Mary to the Life Skills Program at Peterborough Elementary School, but Quintanilha wanted her to get the same instruction as the other students, and in the same classes.

“I know she’s smart,” Quintanilha said. “With autism comes great gifts.”

Quintanilha had a kindred spirit in Linda Potter, then the district’s director of special education, who created a program at Hancock Elementary School that allowed Mary to participate in the same classes with a 1-on-1 aide.

“I had an ally who was looking for a crazy mom to come say, ‘No, not my kid,’” Quintanilha said, adding that now, “ConVal’s getting it right. They really are.”

Being in the same classes also allowed Mary to be part of the community.

“The community is everything, and if she’s not part of the community, they’re not going to take care of her. People look out for her. They know her,” Quintanilha said.

Quintanilha also started working with parents in the Jaffrey-Rindge schools, where she said “kids were being restrained and secluded,” but now students receive everything they need and “those kids are thriving now.”

She became board president at Advocates Building Lasting Equality in NH (ABLE NH), which advocates for children and adults with disabilities. To address a wait list for disability support, she worked with state Rep. Peter Leishman of Peterborough and then-state Rep. Bruce Marcus to procure $1.5 million from the state’s rainy-day fund, a figure the federal government matched.

“Sixty families got services they weren’t going to get,” she said.

Leishman is a Democrat and Marcus a Republican, as is former state Sen. Andy Sanborn, who she worked with even though she said they couldn’t be more opposite politically, because when it comes to advocating for people with disabilities, she said there are no sides of the aisle.

From 2012 to 2021, Quintanilha was a member of the ConVal School Board. She said she was inspired by feelings of guilt.

“My kid was getting whatever (she needed) because I knew how to organize,” she said. “A lot of families aren’t that fortunate. The least I can do is fight for equity.”

Between her advocacy and her work on the school board, Quintanilha said she was known as a provocateur.

“When somebody wanted a provocative story told, they called me,” she said.

Connections and dignity

Once, when Quintanilha was organizing in Concord, a bagel shop was under construction across from the State House. It had three steps, preventing people in wheelchairs from getting inside. To show the problem with the setup, she and her colleagues would lift someone in a wheelchair up the steps, which Quintanilha said upset some people because the people involved with the building and the business were nice.

“You can target nice guys,” she said.

One friend, in particular, was upset, and Quintanilha responded by giving her a copy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and telling her she should read it.

Later when the friend was in Alabama campaigning for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, she sent Quintanilha a photo from a Birmingham jail.

“That’s the most-impactful stuff,” she said.

And, Quintanilha noted, the City of Concord is now completely accessible.

“It’s literally a model for the rest of the country now,” she said.

Quintanilha said the most-satisfying part of what she does is watching others, and the most-important thing in organizing is building relationships.

“I didn’t have money. I had to organize people,” she said. “For years, I would just have coffee with the other moms. Until you know enough people, you can’t tie them all together. You have to have pretty strong shoulders, but there are people who can help you build strong shoulders.”

First and foremost, said Quintanilha, is to not let anyone steal dignity.

“The system’s really set up to steal dignity,” she said.

Each month, the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript will recognize one of our region’s many Hometown Heroes. Nominate a Hometown Hero.

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