In the wet, hot summer of 1984, Dallas City Hall Plaza hosted a full-on beach party, Formula One staged a race in Fair Park, and Splash hit movie theaters. But Mark Whitburn, a shy, bespectacled college kid with a philosophical bent, was headed to Camp Soroptimist in Argyle. He had decided to spend his summer as a counselor at one of the first camps in the country to serve children with disabilities.
One afternoon, while walking up to the main lodge, he noticed a young teenager with severe cerebral palsy in a wheelchair. As he approached, the boy started making noises and flailing his arms. Instead of dismissing the behavior as an involuntary spasm, Whitburn thought he recognized something familiar. As he got closer, the kid’s wide grin confirmed it.
He was laughing. At Whitburn.
For the first time in what would end up a lifetime of listening, Whitburn stayed with Sean Pevsner to try to understand what he was saying. The one thing he was sure of was that Pevsner was laughing at his own joke. After spending half an hour with him, Whitburn was finally able to decipher the comment that had tickled his new friend: “Four eyes.”
While an insult about one’s glasses may not be the best way to start a friendship, Whitburn could tell that he was talking to someone with a sharp, witty mind who not only knew how to laugh but would persevere through any obstacle to make his point, even if it was just for a joke.
Nearly four decades later, Whitburn and Pevsner are best friends. They run a law firm in Arlington together, advocating on behalf of clients with disabilities. Few lawyers have more lived experience than the pair, who have been in this fight since the summer they first met. Which means these days, the joke is on anyone who underestimates them.
Sean Pevsner died for 45 minutes just as his life began. When the anesthesiologist resuscitated the newborn from clinical death, he woke up to a lifetime of challenges. As a result of the lack of oxygen during birth, Pevsner had severe cerebral palsy, which limited his ability to control his body and gave him speech difficulties that made him hard to understand. The disorder isn’t progressive, meaning it doesn’t get worse over time, but there is no cure. It was simply a condition that Pevsner needed to learn how to live with, and one that others needed to learn how to adjust to.
The fight started with access to mainstream education. When Pevsner was born, in 1971, public schools did not have to accommodate students with special needs, so he was sent away at the age of 5 to live at the Thomas W. Hughen School for Crippled Children in Port Arthur, Texas, while his family remained in Arlington.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was passed in 1975, had just begun to be implemented as Pevsner started school. The new law meant that public schools had to provide an education to children with disabilities that was appropriate for their needs. But determining what was suitable for a student like Pevsner was complicated. So when he announced that he wanted to come home, his parents hired an attorney to help them navigate the process. Without the ability to write or speak clearly and without the technology to help him do so, Pevsner needed an aide to take notes in class, interpret his speech, and transcribe his answers.
When the high school threatened to place Pevsner in remedial classes despite his stellar schoolwork in previous grades, Whitburn, who had kept in contact with the younger teen, decided to change the trajectory of his life. He had recently graduated from Yale with plans to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. But he knew the extent of his friend’s intellectual gifts, and he understood that Pevsner might not reach his potential without a strong advocate who understood both his abilities and needs. So Whitburn made the choice to put his plans on hold and move in with Pevsner’s family to be a champion for his friend.
“I had an opportunity to get close to Sean and understand what his goals and aspirations were and the way he was looking at the world,” Whitburn says. “It became very clear to me that there’s no way I could turn my back on that.”
Through numerous meetings with the district and school administrators, Pevsner, his family, and Whitburn fought for Pevsner’s right to attend mainstream high school classes. Armed with an aide and an early computer that allowed him to type his answers using Morse code, he was able to keep up. Special education teachers provided additional support, but he was no longer in danger of being restricted to remedial courses.
“People were open to me, and I had great special education teachers,” he says. “They fully supported me and were awesome. I was blessed.” Even so, administrators said he was unlikely to graduate high school before he was 22 years old. Ever the contrarian, Pevsner graduated at 19.
“Sean would get frustrated because a lot of the teachers didn’t feel he was able to handle the load,” says John Newman, Pevsner’s high school special education teacher. “But let me tell you, there’s no doubt that he was able to handle it.”
When Pevsner graduated in the top 20 percent of his class, he received a standing ovation from his peers. “He did a lot for a lot of different people, because he opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Newman says. “We all appreciated it because he was a great kid to work with.”
The following fall, Pevsner and Whitburn headed to the University of Texas. One year of assistance had turned into four years of support from Whitburn, who had tabled his Ph.D. in order to serve his friend. But he would soon make another impressive sacrifice: living with Pevsner in a freshman dorm as a 26-year-old as he started his doctorate and Pevsner began undergraduate coursework.
The two lived in Jester Hall, the infamous no-frills college dorm that was so large it once had its own ZIP code. Never the complainer, Whitburn continued to provide personal care for his friend as he navigated his own academic commitments. “He is a gift from God,” Pevsner says of Whitburn.
In between coursework for his Greek and Latin majors, Pevsner advocated for disability rights on campus, leading rallies for improved accessibility. He formed Groups United Against Rights Discrimination, a student-run organization that worked to make sure the school’s master plan addressed accessibility issues and training was provided to campus bus drivers on how to accommodate disabled riders.
Pevsner was persistent and wasn’t afraid to roll over a few toes when he saw injustice. It made for awkward moments when his student helpers would have to translate for him during meetings, often forced into using stronger language with authority figures than they might have if they were speaking for themselves.
“He believed that things could change and could happen,” says Christa Belyaev, one of his student attendants at UT. “When there was something that needed to be done, he just did it. He called the people that needed to know, and he called the people who needed to be involved.”
While it may have caused moments of discomfort, being on Pevsner’s team brought students into a circle of passion and change-making they may not have known otherwise. “Being Sean’s attendant was part of my identity,” Belyaev says. “He was a very prominent person on campus, and I am not prominent. I got to be in the shadow of Sean. It was a source of pride for me.”
Pevsner received numerous awards throughout his undergraduate years, including some for Latin and Greek translation. But his educational goals continued beyond college. He wanted to be able to make things better for others like him, so he set his sights on law school.
Pevsner was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and he put his head down, painstakingly dictating oral arguments and term papers through his student helpers and serving as an associate editor for the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. He graduated from law school in 2004.
“People have underestimated him his entire life because he is forced to communicate slowly when his brain is whip fast,” says Lynn Blais, the associate dean for academic affairs when Pevsner was a law student. “A lot of people had trouble wanting to believe that at first, so I saw it as my job to run interference between him and the doubters.”
After he graduated from law school, it was time to take the bar exam. It was then that Pevsner faced his most difficult and exhausting challenge yet. He filed his application for accommodations to the exam, and, after he appealed the original ruling, the Board of Law Examiners gave him double time for the 200 multiple-choice questions, triple time for the 90 short answer questions, triple time on the lawyer skills essay, and quadruple time on the 25 Texas law essays. In the end, he was given seven days to take a test that is usually 15 hours spread over three days.
But after the first day, Pevsner was exhausted. Because of his speech and physical limitations, he had to give his answers orally—including entire essays—word by word. To keep sentences, much less entire paragraphs, in one’s mind would be impossible for most, but Pevsner had no choice. In the end, he was granted an extra day, but it wasn’t enough. After eight days of testing, Pevsner fell short of passing by a handful of points. He eventually passed the bar in 2011. And at his side, interpreting his answers during the eight days of the bar exam, was his old friend Whitburn.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson specifically acknowledged Pevsner, and he received another standing ovation. Pevsner didn’t know that Jefferson’s family friend had a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy whom he had seated in the front row so she could see someone like her become a professional advocate. “I did not believe anything could top my passage of the eight-day Texas Bar Exam,” Pevsner says, “but I was proven wrong.”
After Whitburn finished his Ph.D. in philosophy, the life that he had pictured for himself as a professor of philosophy didn’t materialize. So he decided to go to law school as well, mainly to bolster his academic credentials. But once again, his plans would change.
Whitburn describes himself as unbearably shy, uncomfortable interacting with others much less being confrontational, so the last place he saw himself was in court. But as he watched Pevsner crusade for himself and others, he was moved. As he had done so many times before, he decided to join his friend in the fight for equitable housing, education, and employment for those with disabilities.
Whitburn describes himself as unbearably shy, uncomfortable interacting with others much less being confrontational, so the last place he saw himself was in court.
“The fact that he needed my help in advocacy meant I had to get over my shyness and get out there to talk to people about what he needed,” Whitburn says. “That helped me get over some of my inhibitions.”
After stints with Gibson Dunn and the ACLU, Whitburn joined Pevsner to form Whitburn Pevsner LLC in Arlington. The firm has no advertising budget, but the two attorneys stay plenty busy because they are experts in cases that few other firms will touch. While both appear in court for hearings and prepare motions and briefs, current technology isn’t quite adept enough to allow Pevsner to handle the unpredictability of a contentious trial or deposition, so Whitburn usually handles those matters.
The firm takes special education cases on behalf of those with disabilities, but what separates them from nearly every other firm in the state are the Fair Housing Act cases where they represent clients living in group homes. These homes are often protested by homeowners associations that attempt to remove or prevent them using restrictive covenants. Whitburn and Pevsner’s unique expertise means they are involved with cases all around the country, including Mississippi and Hawaii. The firm also specializes in cases against the state when disabled clients are not given appropriate nursing care to live independently.
In 2017, the firm received an exemplar judgment against the Capella Park Homeowners’ Association, a relatively new residential development in southwest Dallas near Dallas Baptist University. The HOA wanted to exclude two homes that housed individuals with intellectual disabilities and sued the owner in state court. The basis for the lawsuit was a claim that the owner had violated the restrictive covenant by operating a business because the homes required staff to support the residents. The HOA won at trial, but when Pevsner and Whitburn filed an appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, arguing that the disabled residents deserved an accommodation to the covenant to allow the residents an equal opportunity to live in a home of their choice.
“We have an interest in this issue ourselves,” Pevsner says, “and the fact that others are aware of our experience in this area has led people to send these cases to us as well.”
One of his favorite stories is Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus travels the world facing gods, monsters, temptations, and despair. In the end, he encounters Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, whom he previously met as a young man. Alcinous speaks to Odysseus about the importance of sharing your life’s journey with someone who knows your innermost thoughts and emotions. It is this moment between Odysseus and Alcinous that Pevsner says captures his friendship with Whitburn.
“There is a special relationship between two men who share their hardships, sorrows, and dreams with each other,” Pevsner says.
Whitburn, despite his immense sacrifices, has no regrets.
“I could have chosen to go a different route,” he says. “But I have believed that the stakes were high enough and the goal worthwhile enough to make these decisions the right ones.”
This story originally appeared in the May issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Being There.” Write to [email protected].