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With a paint brush strapped to his forehead, Dan Keplinger keenly eyeballs the paper on the floor.

Art – especially painting – is no cakewalk for a man whose arms and hands are so spastic he can’t hold a fork. Keplinger must be fed every meal. He takes at least 10 minutes to brush his teeth every morning and 15 minutes to get dressed.

“Everybody has something to contribute [to the world],” Keplinger said Friday at Stamp Student Union. “Most people think you have to have money and power to make a difference, but you don’t.”

Keplinger’s wife, Dena, translated her husband’s distorted speech to a crowd of about 60 at “Rise Above: Student Symposium on Disabilities.”

The subject of the 2000 Oscar Award-winning documentary “King Gimp,” Keplinger was born with cerebral palsy, a condition causing impaired muscle coordination from brain damage.

Noa Zarka, a freshman enrolled in letters and sciences, said she was shocked that some in the audience hadn’t seen the documentary.

“It’s a great film,” Zarka said. “The film tells the story of someone who has truly overcome the disabled stigma.”

Dena Keplinger said two teachers in her husband’s life who were not understanding of his disability embodied the challenges he faced.

One even left what she described as a “love/hate letter.”

“This letter basically said, ‘I’m going to save you some time. I’m going to give you some opinions here. My opinion is this: you are not an artist and nor will you ever be, and I really think you should be going into something different,’” she said.

Dan Keplinger scanned that letter. He kept it as a reminder of why he had to succeed.

“I [pursued art] to prove her wrong,” Dan Keplinger said.

He did.

Keplinger finished his formal education at 35 with a master’s degree in of fine arts from Towson University. He now travels nationally and globally with his wife to tell his story and inspire the disabled from all walks of life.

But Keplinger didn’t do it on his own.

He used to call the friends who helped him succeed his “network,” but he’s recently come up with a more fitting name.

“Now they’re my ninjas,” Keplinger said. “Most people don’t see ninjas. They just get the job done and don’t take credit.”

Freshman biochemistry major Saloni Shah said she liked the event’s attempt to raise awareness for the disabled.

“It gave a different perspective on disabilities,” Shah said, “Yes, there are laws to help the disabled. But the public often discriminates silently, without even knowing.”

Keplinger was the keynote speaker of the event. Seven campus organizations, including Terp Thon and Autism Speaks, joined Keplinger along with students who gave presentations on disabled locals.

Eric Sumner is a senior journalism major and can be reached at esumner@terpmail.umd.edu.

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