Nothing irked Wesley Vinner more than people who talked down to him.

People who slowed their speech, took extra time to enunciate their words or dumbed down their thoughts as they searched for hints of comprehension in Vinner's eyes.

The 55-year-old District resident with fleshy jowls and the lumbering physique of an aging football lineman faced many challenges, but he wasn't dumb. In some ways, in fact, he was extremely savvy, especially when it came to the art of politics.

It was with those skills that he helped shape how society views people, like himself, with mental retardation.

He outlined his goal during a speech at the 1996 national convention of the Arc of the United States, an organization that advocates for mentally retarded people, when he said he would "like to see people with mental retardation respected and given their total freedom to choose and live in the lifestyle that they would like."

Vinner, who was active on the local and national levels of the Arc, spoke with a great deal of authority, given his triumph over adversity early in life that could have left him wallowing in bitterness. Instead, he turned his past into a motivating force that compelled him to speak out in hopes that his experience would not be repeated.

Vinner's personal story began before his earliest memories when, at age 5, he was committed to Forest Haven, the District's now-closed mental asylum in Laurel. About that time, in the mid-1950s, about 700 people lived at Forest Haven's various complexes, some as young as 2.

Growing up at Forest Haven, he would later say, he witnessed nightmarish scenes, including staff beatings of residents and sexual abuse. He also said that a dentist who treated the residents was actually a veterinarian.

Vinner became one of the public faces of life at Forest Haven after a 1999 article appeared in The Washington Post about the mortality rate among the deinstitutionalized in the District's community-based care system of the mentally retarded.

"I wonder somewhat," Vinner said in the article. "It's like we're dying left and right in programs that say they protect us."

Some good also was found at Forest Haven. Vinner came across those who showed him kindness, such as the teacher who instilled him with the confidence to learn, and a counselor who introduced Vinner to the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ in Riverdale.

When Vinner left Forest Haven in the late 1960s, at age 20, he maintained his ties to the church while living with friends and some other families before ultimately finding his own one-room apartment on Good Hope Road in Southeast Washington.

Inside, he cooked his own meals, relaxed to gospel music, displayed a large collection of wood and ceramic turtle figurines and decorated his walls with framed photographs, of himself with some of Washington's powerbrokers, taken as he campaigned over the decades for the rights of the disabled.

Among his prized possessions was a photograph showing Vinner at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act.

Vinner, who worked as a maintenance man and trash collector in the 1970s, became an authority on affordable housing issues for people with disabilities. As an advocate, he testified before the D.C. Council and congressional committees while exhibiting some of the same characteristics as the politicians he encountered, according to those who worked with him.

"He was full of gusto, a natural-born politician," said Steve Eidelman, executive director of the Arc. "He was very much in the mold of the baby-kissing, hand-shaking, back-slapping kind of guy. He filled a room with his presence."

Until his health began to fail because of diabetes and congestive heart failure, Vinner traveled regularly across the country, speaking at self-advocacy groups.

About a year and a half ago, he moved from Washington to an apartment in Riverdale, where he died April 12.

"He wanted to come back to work after he was feeling better," said Kathy McGinley, who worked with Vinner on the Arc's Governmental Affairs Committee and the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities Health Task Force, an advocacy organization. "He was that dedicated to the cause."

For the health task force, which he joined in 2000, Vinner set up meetings and distributed information. At one task force meeting, which happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day, he arranged for green bagels and cream cheese to be served.

"I think we had our largest attendance at that meeting," McGinley said.

In his work for the Arc of the United States, Wesley Vinner,

clockwise from top, met former surgeon general David Satcher; accepted the Bill

Sackter Award for his transition from institutionalization to mainstream living; and

volunteered at the group's conventions.