When a severe asthma attack left Teresa May De Vera with a permanent physical disability, she felt unmotivated to return to college–until she participated in Disability Mentoring Day, sponsored by the Disability Rights Legal Center’s (DRLC). The annual event brings students and job seekers, both of whom have disabilities, into workplace settings where they can learn about a range of career opportunities.
For Teresa, it was a life-transforming event: She was paired with David W. Burcham, the dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, whom she shadowed throughout much of the day. Then, when Burcham was called into an urgent meeting, he put her in the capable hands of one of his law-professor colleagues, who allowed her to sit in on an afternoon lecture.
Inspired by the other students as well as the positive attention she received that day, Teresa realized that there was no reason on earth why she shouldn’t return to college as well. She re-enrolled the next semester, and went on to graduate. Now she’s completing her Master’s Degree in Theology with an emphasis in Bioethics at Loyola Marymount University, where she has become a disability-rights advocate as well.
Since it started eight years ago at the White House, Disability Mentoring Day (DMD) has grown from a tiny local event, with less than three dozen students participating, to an international happening with all 50 states and many countries around the world joining in.
During the Los Angeles-based day, the DRLC pairs 150 mentors and mentees (ages 16 years and older), so the latter can learn what it means to work in that general field or that specific job, by observing a typical workday, understanding the skills needed and learning about possible internships and employment possibilities.
For instance, last year William Grignon, a member of the DRLC’s Young Professional Board and an associate with Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, hosted 15 students at his downtown L.A. law firm. He coordinated activities among all the departments so students could experience first-hand the range of employment opportunities, from receptionist, file clerk, paralegal, associate to managing partner. The students were pleased to learn about the range of employment opportunities, while the law firm was happy to serve as host to potential future employees, and agreed to sponsor additional mentoring activities down the line.
Mentors and mentees are always encouraged to keep in touch, which can pay big dividends. Following last year’s event, for example, one of the students applied and was hired by his mentor’s company.
Studies show that mentoring is beneficial to both mentor and student. Mentees have the opportunity to gain wisdom and insight about the working world and career options, while mentors have the opportunity to share their experiences, insight and leadership with enthusiastic students. These personal connections help eliminate barriers to employment often faced by people with disabilities.
This is key because the disability community needs to be able to find and retain work that alleviates and finally eliminates poverty. As recently as 2005, the National Organization on Disability found that only 32 percent of Americans with disabilities aged 18 to 64 are working, which means two-thirds are not. Compared to the non-disabled population, three times as many in the disability community have annual household incomes below $15,000, the federal poverty line.
Each year the DRLC’s Mentoring Day begins with a kick-off breakfast and concludes with a closing-ceremony dinner, where participants describe a significant experience they had that day. We look forward to many great stories coming out of this year’s DMD on October 17, 2007.
by Paula Pearlman and John Longoria
To participate as a mentee or an inspiring mentor or sponsor, please contact John Longoria, Community Outreach Director at the Disability Rights Legal Center, John.Longoria@lls.edu or (213)736-8366.