The Future Is Bright: Advancing Opportunities For People With Disabilities
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The Future Is Bright: Advancing Opportunities For People With Disabilities

Lawyer, longtime wheelchair user and passionate Jewish activist Matan Koch on why 2019 will be a great year for creating more opportunities for people with disabilities.

Matan Koch
Matan Koch

As a lawyer, longtime wheelchair user and passionate Jewish activist, I am more upbeat than ever that 2019 will be a great year for advancing opportunities and equality for people with disabilities.

Notwithstanding a few challenges, the ADA and all of its protections remain the law of the land, and on January 15, the bipartisan Disability Integration Act that sets forward that people with disabilities have a right to receive services in their homes will be reintroduced in both Houses of Congress. Just as important, the signature accomplishment of the Obama Labor Department, the introduction of a 7% hiring goal of people with disabilities for federal contractors, remains in force under the present administration. The gains are slow, but real.

In the last few years, disability has become something to proudly call out on a job application, rather than something that you hope your employer does not notice until the offer is on the table. More and more companies, including JPMC, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, either because of the law, or just maybe because it is good business, are building meaningful programs to promote their disability recruitment.

Success is extending beyond federal contractors. Just a few months ago, I was invited to speak on a panel of the Connecticut Bar Association about employment of attorneys with disabilities. Not only was it somewhat groundbreaking that such a panel existed in the first place, but one of my fellow panelists, a partner at the law firm Reed Smith, talked about their energetic efforts to recruit and retain attorneys with disabilities. When I started in the legal profession 13 years ago, I experienced open discrimination in the interview process. Back then a “good” firm was one who would look beyond my disability, to my talent, and begin an accommodation discussion. There were very few such “good” firms then. Now more and more law firms are actually trying to recruit attorneys with disabilities. Let us ride that wave.

In many industries, the excitement goes beyond recruitment. With historically low unemployment among the population without disabilities, combined with a renewed interest in all of the benefits in incorporating disabled talent, companies are actually training people with disabilities to come to them.

Here in Boston, where I am privileged to sit on the committee that oversees the Transitions to Work program at Jewish Vocational Services, a Ruderman Family Foundation funded initiative which began training people with disabilities directly at employer partners more than half a decade ago, more and more employers are knocking on our door, looking to establish similar programs in their offices.

This enthusiasm is not limited to Boston. Early this year, I was thrilled to speak with 5th/3rd Bank, whom, at their headquarters in the Midwest, houses a hugely successful program training people with disabilities to work in the banking and finance industries. Then I had the privilege to keynote the annual staff development conference for the Connecticut Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. There I learned that their dedicated team of hard-working government counselors is eagerly and quickly building such partnership programs in Connecticut. We may have a ways to go on numbers, but we have made amazing progress on interest and successful strategies. I think 2019 is the perfect year for us to take these models to our employers, and our businesses, opening them up to an explosion in talent. If you are a jobseeker with a disability, seek out those companies that are already looking for you, because guess what, there are more of them than ever.

Our potential is not limited to the areas of government and employment. The past year saw transformative potential take root in the Jewish world. Our camps, often the laboratories of our communities’ collective innovation, are poised to be revolutionized by a $12 million grant from the Weinberg Foundation to the Foundation for Jewish Camping. The potential for change in our next generation of Jewish leaders literally beyond comprehension.

Not to be outdone, congregations all over the country have been diving in with a renewed commitment and fresh ideas. Here in Boston in the last 2 months alone, I was privileged to visit 4 congregations as part of my consultancy to Combined Jewish Philanthropies Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, (RSIP) each of which sent the clergy and/or their senior leaders to meet with me and discuss detailed and energized plans for inclusion.

Just last month, over 500 representatives of dozens of Boston-area synagogues came together for our semiannual RSIP gathering. That so many people and congregations were making inclusion of people with disabilities a priority would have been amazing in and of itself, but even more exciting was the fact that we got to hear from 3 congregations that have each made tremendous strides in programs to support and engage their members with mental illness. It really looks like the Jewish community is ready to embrace our members with mental illness, with the same enthusiasm we brought to physical and sensory disabilities.

If you think that this is the direction that your synagogue might like to follow, I encourage you to visit the RSIP website, where you can find a vast number of resources and solutions, many of which I was privileged to write or curate, to help you through every stage of your synagogue’s journey. As much wonderful work as the Project has done here in Boston, I think it is the collection of materials and successes which will allow it to explode nationwide.

Our college kids are also getting involved. This summer, for the 2nd time, I was privileged to lead the orientation for Hillel International’s Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors. I was thrilled to work with young people representing more than a dozen campuses, each of whom are committed to bringing the work of inclusion to their campus. It was amazing to see what last year’s class had accomplished, and inspiring to see connections and brainstorming happening even as we had the ambassadors together to train them. Their work and their enthusiasm run over to other campuses. Literally just yesterday, a Hillel in California reached out to find out if I would lead a class for their kids on the Jewish roots of disability activist.

I hope that you are as inspired as I am, not just by the progress, but for the vast potential for change represented in all of this. What is more, I feel like these few words are just the tip of the iceberg. Wherever the heart of your disability inclusion passion, from industry and employment, to education, Judaism, or even Hollywood, something exciting is happening. 2019 will be a great year because, in any facet of society where people desire to promote inclusion, I believe the tools exist to do so. They are ours to grasp, let us go do it.

Matan Koch is a lawyer teacher, consultant and thinker, who advocates universal inclusion, the idea that the best approach to inclusion of everyone is the same for those with and without disabilities, i.e. helping to eliminate barriers so that everyone can share their light. He developed these ideas as an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability. A graduate of Yale College and the Harvard Law School, Matan practiced law both in-house at Procter & Gamble and as an associate in the New York office of Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel, LLP. More recently, Matan founded, and is the Principal and CEO of Capitalizability LLC, working with organizations in the Jewish and secular world to promote their inclusion goals. For more about Matan, visit www.matankoch.com.

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