Profits, Debts and Fresh Starts, A Jewish Take on the Entrenchment of Income Inequality

I recently read an article about an artist named Fried Potatoes, who incinerated $500,000,000 of tuition debt agreements from a corrupt University in Chile, rendering them virtually impossible to enforce.

I do not support arson, and I know that the lender here was a particularly egregious criminal, so I don’t suggest emulating these choices, but I think many can identify with the impulse, even here. As a few Americans gain ever greater wealth, while most struggle under growing debt, we must struggle with the question of what kind of society that creates, and whether that is the kind of place we want to live. If not, what might we do differently?

The best answer that I have found came to me when I was preparing to deliver a D’var Torah (sort of a Jewish homily) at congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline Massachusetts on May 9, 2014. I was asked to speak on the portion of the Torah which was primarily contained in Leviticus Chapter 25, which was the Jewish reading for that week.

Though it would be weeks before I encountered the protest of Fried Potatoes, I was immediately struck by what I perceived to be clear moral guidance on the questions of growing income inequality in our society and of how a just society addresses the basic needs of those who have less.

In the Torah we read, starting at Leviticus 25:10,

“and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines,
12 for it is a jubilee.” (Leviticus 25: 10-12)

This proclaims the jubilee year, which, under differing interpretations of Jewish law, is either the 49th or 50th year in a cycle. In the jubilee year, we read, all property goes back to the original divine land grants to each Israelite, if in fact it has not already been redeemed for value, which is the clear preference in the Torah. See Leviticus 25: 25-28. Note, this has the effect of turning all property sales into a 50 year maximum purchase of the yield of real property, the actual term being from date of purchase to date of jubilee.

The same chapter of Leviticus introduces the concept of the 7 year fellow cycle. In Deuteronomy’s restatement of Jewish law, we read

1 Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.
2 This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord. …
4 There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion
5 if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. . .
7 If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. . . ,
9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.
10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” Deut. 15:1-10 (excerpted)

The implications of this passage are astonishing. In the biblical world, every 7 years there was an automatic bankruptcy, a wiping clean of debt, and every 50 years, everyone reverted to their baseline stake of real property, divinely granted.

Now, this system is in no way anti-capitalist. The very fact that there is a system of redemption payments in land transfers makes clear that you can keep profits from anything that you sell. Further, the Bible exempted townhomes from reversion. The idea was not to prohibit elevating one’s status by amassing significant wealth, but rather a limit as to how far one could fall. No crushing decades of debt, and, every generation a mandatory reversion, granting each family the basic means of subsistence, a baseline from which to improve their condition.

The actual system almost certainly did not work. Even the Bible has to expressly prohibit the freezing of credit in the 7th year and, as early as Rabbi Hillel, (A Rabbi living in the first century CE), the rabbis were creating nondischargeable debts that worked around the text, and Yehuda Hanasi (the codifier of the Mishna in the 3rd century CE) created rabbinic limitations around the land rules. Certainly, both Maimonides and Nachmanides spend some time trying to work out ways that the land will not revert.

This is almost irrelevant, however. We do not live in Israel on biblical land grants, and so we would not be following many of these rules anyway.

What is important is that, notwithstanding efforts to support a functioning economic system, the rabbis never departed from the values inherent in the systems. From the Talmud, through Maimonides, well into key Jewish thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries, notwithstanding exceptions and vehicles for legally nondischargeable debt, we learn that the presumption of automatic bankruptcy was still operational.

How does this guide us today? I think that it is extraordinarily valuable to envision a capitalism where everyone retains the basic right of subsistence, where profits are tolerated but crushing debt loads are not. Simple things like an economic safety net that works, and a bankruptcy system that retains the homestead exception while completely dispensing with the notion of nondischargeable debt. We do not have farmlands to give people, but we, like the Jews of old, can make sure that no one falls too far into destitution. Let’s find ways to avoid crushing people under the weight of debt, so that they will not be moved to theft and arson. Let’s create a just society for all.


Reclaiming Memorial Day: Can We Make It Real Without Being Touched by Loss?

Memorial Day became real for me on October 2, 2009, when a high school friend, Captain Benjamin Sklaver, was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the victim of a suicide bomber. Before Memorial Day 2010, the day was a mix of half remembered parades, three-day weekends, and the life cycle events planned when everyone is off work. It was the summer denoting bank holiday rightfully lamented by commentators nationwide.  That Memorial Day, the sacrifice of our nation’s heroes came home, and now the day is never quite the same.

Ben and I were not super close, he was a senior to my freshman. In fact, I had closer friendships with his younger brother Sam, who was my age, and his parents, Gary and Laura, whose Hamden Connecticut house became a home away from home when I was unable to return home from Yale for the holidays. As such, I cannot say that I felt the deep personal pain of losing a close friend.

Neither, however, had I only the generic admiration and respect for a man whose heroic and tragic story was held up as an example in Time magazine, and who, though he died at the age I am now, had served his country, found love, and founded the Clear Water Initiative, an organization that continues saving and improving lives almost 5 years after his passing (direct donation link here). After all, in this Internet connected age, we often learn the moving narratives of our fallen heroes.

Rather, it is the death of a hero made personal. When I think Ben’s sacrifice, I experience it through the memory of our first meeting. I was in the eighth grade, and Ben was taking over a Jewish leadership position from my sister, Shira, who was a graduating senior. As Shira came out to meet my school van, I saw framed in the door what seemed to me to be an impossibly tall, grinning fellow. Shira told that this was Ben, who would be the religious and cultural vice president when I joined our region of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) in the fall. I remember seeking out Ben that fall, and feeling cool because I knew one of the officers. I remember when he, and the other officers, made me feel included when, sometimes, as a 12-year-old kid in a wheelchair, I felt a little left out.

These few moments are the sum total of my memories of Ben, but they make his sacrifice real and poignant for me in a way that 1 million moving tales of heroism cannot. The grinning silhouette in my doorway becomes the face of the fallen hero.

I think that the impersonal nature of loss is probably what drives the move from somber Memorial Day observance to a focus on picnics, barbecues, and life cycle events. Leaving aside a commentary on the corrosive force of commercialism, and the loss of symbolic power in favor of a three-day weekend, sacrifice takes on a different dimension when the loss is personal.

As we are about to complete our 13th year of ongoing combat operations, far too many of us are gaining those personal connections, and I rejoice rather than lament for those whose lives have not been so touched. That said, I wonder if we can capture a sense of connection by a slight change in perspective.

A friend posted a Facebook reminder that Memorial Day was for those who did not come home, while Veterans Day was for those who did. Surely this is an accurate distinction, and yet, I wonder, can we meet our very human need for real connection to our fallen, even through those who came home?

During my time as a member of the National Council on Disability, I was privileged to serve in a civilian capacity with Captain Lonnie Moore (U.S. Army, retired) and Captain Jonathan Kuniholm, (United States Marine Corps, retired). Captains Moore and Kuniholm obviously survived their time in the military, and have thrived in civilian life. Yet, both sustained serious battlefield injuries, and have permanent disabilities.

Though I have never asked, I assume that, having been in such heated combat, they lost comrades and, but for the grace of God and modern technology, might well have lost their lives. As Captain Moore reminded me today, for all intents and purposes, he did die, only to be revived by yet another form of heroism, the service of our medical doctors.
As I hear of fallen heroes, can I be empathetic enough to realize how easily that could have been my friends and colleagues, Jon and Lonnie? Can I link the memories of their comrades to my memories of them much as I described with Ben? I would like to think so.

Many of us are blessed not to have lost a friend or loved one in service to our country. And yet, after 13 years at war, almost all of us have had meaningful interaction with someone who served. Just last week, I had an x-ray from an x-ray technician who was an Army veteran who told me of his service and I opened a bank account under the helpful guidance of a young branch supervisor who told me of his recently completed naval service. Connections abound.

So, as we look this Memorial Day at the stories of our fallen heroes, can we take just a moment to understand their similarity to the veterans among our family, friends and neighbors? Can we use those common bonds to personalize their sacrifice, and maybe to make Memorial Day real for us? How about we just try?

Law and Lawyers

Obligation Born of Privilege: The Lawyer’s Duty to Enable Civic Access for All

Any lawyer reading this has experienced that moment, when a friend or family member has been confronted with a legal document or procedure, and gets this forlorn, slightly overwhelmed look. If you are a young lawyer, as you are explaining and demystifying, you might feel generous and slightly superior. You know the secret handshake. Your three years of school privileged you with the proverbial keys to the kingdom, and now you get to unlock that mystery for your friend or a loved one. In this piece, I want to explore what that privilege means in the context of those who do not come from a world where they have lawyers for friends and family members. They feel the same forlorn disorientation as does your a loved one, but they do not have you riding to the rescue. I say that the obligatory cost of our privilege is that, at least to some degree, they should.

This idea first occurred to me in March 2012 when I was honored by Young lawyers section of the Connecticut Bar Association with their diversity award. I was asked to exhort the young lawyers to public service. Along with some good-natured ribbing on the idea that I had been asked to give an exhortation, I did my best to explain why I believe that lawyers have an obligation to perform pro bono service, and why I think that the most important such projects are the most humble. I told them this story.

When I was a junior associate, a partner of my then law firm approached me because she had been approached by a judge of the Surrogate’s Court. A mother had come into court seeking a Surrogate’s guardianship for her adult child with intellectual disabilities, so that she and his father could continue to partner with him in making the necessary legal decisions so that he could live his life. Surrogate’s guardianship in New York is a simple process specifically for people with a particular type of intellectual disability. It does not require a lawyer. In this case, the New York County Surrogate determined that the young man was not a good candidate for this type of guardianship, and needed a traditional guardian appointed through the main court system.

Thus was this mother stymied, and reduced to tears at the prospect of a legal proceeding that would require a lawyer, something beyond her means. The Surrogate, who was in my opinion a woman of great wisdom and compassion, was not willing to compromise the legal standards, but reached out to our firm in hopes that she could remove the practical barrier to this family getting what they needed.

I spent the next 6 months going through the mechanical and legalistic process of an uncontested guardianship appointment. Though uncontested, it required multiple filings, and the questioning of witnesses in open court. While no legal ingenuity was required, this simply could not have been accomplished without a lawyer, and I feel that this process was one of the most useful things I have yet done with my law license.

This story is not unique. Everything from buying a house in most states, to obtaining even a no-fault divorce or appointing an uncontested guardian requires a lawyer in our system. We have made critical tasks in individual lives dependent upon our profession. And, rightfully given the need to earn a living, we charge for our services, often quite a bit.

To compensate for these high fees, we donate some of our services pro bono publico, for the good of the public. In fact, we are taught that this is our obligation in exchange for the privilege of being considered professionals. It is an obligation that is becoming increasingly universally accepted. There is no question, that is a good thing.

Most of us, however, want to do sexy pro bono. In my firm must popular pro bono was marriage equality work, followed by some Guantánamo work, and some criminal appeals. People did some domestic relations, but it never felt like it had the same draw. In other firms, armies of associates work on death penalty cases, or impact litigation. All of this work is critical, and world changing. Yet it does nothing to serve the basic needs of people like my clients, who just wanted to be able to help their son.

My exhortation to the Young lawyers, therefore, was more than just to do pro bono. Certainly, I do not want them to cease their important work on the types of cases described above. We can and must move forward as a society on these big issues. What I request, however, is that they take some time to help with the little things.

I do not know if it is particularly desirable that lawyers are necessary for things to be accomplished in our society. I suspect that it is not. That, however, is beyond my ability to change, and largely beyond the ability of even the collective of young people that I spoke to in 2012. What we can do, what we must do, and what I ask any lawyers among my readers to continue doing, is take some time to help people navigate the system, addressing the problem one person at a time.

Disability, Sexuality and Body Image

From Objects of Sympathy to Objects of Desire: Are We Finally Ready to Embrace the Sexuality of People with Disabilities?

In the world after “The Sessions,” it may finally have permeated the general consciousness that people with disabilities have sexual urges, and even that they act on them. Less clear is how well we acknowledge as a society that people with disabilities can also be the objects of sexual desire, experiencing and enjoying a relationship of mutual attraction, not only spiritual or mental, but physical. This week I was presented with two stories that provided interesting insights. One left me despairing and mildly ill, the other troubled my inner feminist a bit, but left the disability activist/sometimes sexual person with a disability in me cheering.

I was truly troubled to find a story out of Minnesota this week about Jordan Knapek, a young man with CP going to prom. The author opens by telling us that we are about to hear “a story about how some of life’s best moments aren’t necessarily perfect.” The next 128 words proceed to focus on just how imperfect Jordan’s life is, focusing primarily on his limitations and his need for assistance. Then, we get to the heart of the story. In a tone reminiscent more of how one might talk about an eight-year-old then a 17-year-old high school senior, the author tells us, “Through his communication device, and in front of our camera, a secret got out. Jordan had been crushing on Rachel.”

Now, did Rachel return his romantic interest? Apparently not. Instead, the aspiring nurse said, “I just want him to have that high school prom experience.”

I will say nothing to impugn her motives. It sounds to me like a teenage girl with a big heart wanted to do something nice, and that really is sweet. It is hardly what I understand to be a high school prom experience, however.

My understanding is that usually when a guy asks a girl who does not fancy him to the prom, she usually turns him down, gently or not depending on the individual. Maybe he stays home and mopes, or maybe he bounces back, asks a girl where the interest is mutual, and has an actual high school prom experience. (I am taking no position on teenage sexuality, merely advocating that whatever prom experience two teenagers have, sexual or otherwise, should be genuine.)

Here, the article only tells us somewhat cryptically, “Jordan had to take in most of the night from afar, but his date did take him for a spin.”For Jordan, assuming that he aspires to real romantic relationships, I view this as a negative experience.

Finding real romance, especially for those of us that present to the world a little differently, is a challenge. In my experience, it requires some magical combination of awkwardness and fumbling along with confidence, assertiveness, and a real vulnerability and openness to rejection and heartbreak.

This experience began with a juvenile premise, the sharing of a “crush” with a third party, and ended with pure fantasy, the uninterested object of affection pretending to the bare minima of a date. This no more real than the high school girl who gives one dance to the first grader with a crush, but far less age-appropriate. I only pray for him that he gets to experience the real love of someone who is interested in him as a romantic partner at some point in his life.

This is not my biggest problem with this story, however. My biggest problem is that it typifies the image of people with disabilities as slightly infantile objects of inspiration, suitable for feel-good playacting, but not for real relationships, and certainly not as potential sexual partners.

Mere hours after I read this story, however, I came across a very different portrayal, one that gives me hope that maybe our journey as a society need not end with “The Sessions”, much less the story above.

I was killing time surfing the Washington Post during one of my physical routines, and I came across the news that the runner-up on the show Dancing with the Stars was a paralympian. Curious about this, I followed the link under her name and was brought to a very different story.

The story opens with a sizzling image:

“Purdy and Hough entwined themselves in more ways than you’d think possible throughout a steamy, ingeniously choreographed cha-cha on the season’s first episode. The twisting hips and tight, fast footwork posed no problem for Purdy, a competitive snowboarder.”

Not until two red hot paragraphs later do we read

 “she has abs of steel. Red-carpet looks. Sex appeal to burn, in a lithe body that’s perfect for the show’s skin-baring costumes. And those legs: Peeking out of her adorable gold-fringed cha-cha pants were gleaming metal rods leading to flesh-toned plastic feet, part Terminator, part department-store mannequin.”

Notwithstanding the cheesy imagery and the blatant objectification, which offended my inner aspiring writer and my inner feminist in equal measure, the first mention of disability comes at the end of a series of paragraphs practically dripping with sex appeal.

Now, this is not to ignore that the author follows the tired conventions of disability journalism, using inspiration porn expressions like “She has looked into the abyss, and clawed her way back.” Also, the very emphasis on the way that disability disappears creates a troubling link between sexual appeal and some idea of “normalcy” or passing, but, one societal problem at a time is enough for me.

Also, much of the midsection of the article is a fascinating look at the potentials of prosthetic design, not germane here.

She closes, however, with the following image.

“Tiptoing [sic] onto the stage for her contemporary-style dance with Hough, Purdy wore a simple silver dress with an airy chiffon skirt, the hem short enough to show her muscular thighs and sleek, jet-black shins, exposed metal ankle joints and rubbery Barbie-doll feet in a permanent point. . . . the emotional power lay in the way he and Purdy moved together, as if the dance floor were a private realm beyond reach of physics. And the final picture painted by the author captivates. She writes, “At one heart-catching moment, Purdy melted into his arms and he swept her around his back as if she were weightless. As if she were swimming through air.”

This paragraph describes beauty and power, eroticism and grace, and breathtaking chemistry, and does this not by ignoring the prostheses nor exalting them, but including them seamlessly in the captivating picture. The reader is captivated by the description this woman not because of her prostheses or in spite of them, but rather because of the whole picture of which they are a part. At the end of the article, Ms. Purdy says “I am not my legs.” This is true, but the beauty of this article is that it shows that the legs can be a part of, rather than apart from, the attractive whole.

Without question, this article, like *Dancing with the Stars* in general, is filled with the sort of cheap sexual theatrics of which I generally disapprove. At the same time, I am truly delighted to see the equality of opportunity in the way those theatrics are applied to a woman with a disability. If I have to choose between people with disabilities being portrayed as children, treated to romantic make-believe by their well-meaning peers, or being portrayed as the potential subject of sexual desire, I think the latter is infinitely preferable.

“The Sessions” taught us that people with disabilities seek meaningful sexual relationships. Maybe, just maybe, we are starting to acknowledge that these attractions can be reciprocal. One can hope.


If You Can Manage to Care: Actually Caring is the Best Way to Save on Healthcare

There is great fear in the disability community today about the slow and inevitable transition from Medicaid fee-for-service to Medicaid managed care, and for good reason. For most, managed care conjures up pictures of bureaucracy and rationing, the erosion of choice in favor of the almighty dollar. The rise of the HMO was a horror story in the private sector that many of our most in need are just waiting to see replayed.

Why then are people virtually beating down the doors to join the One Care Program, a managed care program at Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA)? Why do I hear, and share, the lament that CCA’s services are currently only available to those dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, because the capitated payment system on which they function is only available as part of a demonstration project for dually eligible beneficiaries. Why do I hear clamoring for a capitated option for Medicaid only beneficiaries?

The answer can be found in one phrase. “Managed care, not managed cost.” I first heard these words out of the mouth of Dr. Robert Master in the summer of 2003, when I sat with him as he pitched the idea of CCA to potential funders. His decades of demonstration work at what was then the Boston Community Medical Group had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that caring for the whole person improves health and minimizes cost. Why is this?

Crisis control, hospital admission, emergency medicine, and end of life care make up the most expensive parts of any health care system. A nickel prevention here is worth many dollars of cure. Dr. Master and his team learned that if you get to know an individual, learn their needs, their wants, and how their individual bodies work, and if you choose to meet those needs, without regard to a prearranged menu of services, then health care works better and costs less. Routine maintenance, often nickel and dimed by private insurance or fee-for-service Medicare and Medicaid, can prevent crises and hospitalizations. Creative care strategies tailored to the patient can do even more. When the only barrier to paying for medical care is that the doctor and the patient agree on its necessity, amazing things happen. Then there is end of life.

Most of us in the private insurance world build strong relationships with our doctors as we age. Under their thoughtful care, we craft living wills and other end of life plans, we discuss our needs and designate loved ones with powers of attorney. We give careful thought to the balance between the natural extension of our lives and the needless prolonging of our suffering. Traditional government programs, with their impersonal bureaucracies and overtaxed professionals, often fail to participate in, let alone prompt, these discussions. Further, many with disabilities have not been exposed to the cultural norms that Ithose of us who are the educated children of educated professionals did. They have never drafted these plans, and, once a final illness takes the ability to speak for themselves, their doctor has no choice but to fight for the last agonizing breath, often taken long after conscious life has departed. The final service of truly caring managed care is to work with patients to discuss these important questions long before treatment decisions must be made. End of life becomes orderly, often much more pleasant, and, though we hate to admit it, much cheaper. This allows limited dollars to go for quality of life for the living.

In short, when care is truly managed, outcomes are better and cost is less. And you need not take the word of a health plan. Rather just ask the many Massachusetts Medicaid beneficiaries clamoring for CCA. This is a model that should be studied and replicated, a medical practice that is truly first and foremost about care.

Disability, Employment, Judaism

Meaningful Employment for People with Disabilities: Let’s Start Making It Happen Now

Today, I have the honor of being the featured writer on Zeh Lezeh, a blog of the Ruderman Family Foundation. For those who do not know, the Ruderman Family Foundation is a fantastic organization based in Boston and in Israel. Their mission statement, in their own words, is that,

Guided by our Jewish values, we support effective programs, innovative partnerships and a dynamic approach to philanthropy in our core areas of interest: advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community; fostering a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israeli leaders; and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide.”

I can personally attest to their impact as I continue to find their philanthropy at the heart of a vast number of initiatives in the Jewish world designed to improve inclusion of people with disabilities.

Today’s honor reminded me of the first time I had the honor of being their featured writer, on January 2, 2012. I wrote a pitch entitled Full Employment for People with Disabilities: If Not Now, When? It is now two years later, and I feel that my call to action remains, unfortunately, as timely as ever. Therefore, I reproduce the following post here, and challenge my readers to think about how they could implement it.

Guest Blogger Matan Koch, Associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel, LLP and Member of The National Council On Disability

The below represents the author’s personal views, and not those of the National Council on Disability.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam teaches that, when dealing with tzedakah, or righteousness, “the greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by . . . finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs [tzedakah] no longer.” Archaic language notwithstanding, this simple fundamental truth guides us today. Read properly it should inform and motivate efforts to employ people with disabilities, to lessen or to replace their dependence on lesser forms of tzedakah like Medicare, Medicaid, SSI and community supports, and set them up for long-term meaningful independence.

This is nothing new to most people, but the implications of such a focus might be. We read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 11:1, “Send forth your bread upon the waters; for after many days you will find it.” The rabbis explain this directive to mean that we, the doers and givers of tzedakah, benefit.

American businesses are just beginning to understand the benefits of employing people with disabilities. They are learning that it provides access to a separate and often overlooked talent pool. For example, I am a Harvard Law school graduate. Harvard Law school graduates are in high demand, and it is for this reason that I represent an appealing recruit for many businesses. Those businesses will work hard to accommodate me in order to access that talent. These talents, both those that are evident on resumes and those which are only discovered throughout the course of work, present significant benefits to employers.

Businesses are also learning that hiring employees with disabilities may allow the employer to expand in or even dominate the consumer segment with disabilities. To build from the words of the Rambam, strengthening the name of our brethren with disabilities strengthens us and our businesses. As we seek to emulate this highest form of tzedakah, we build independence, but also stand to reap tremendous benefits. That is a win-win, so, I ask “If not now, when?”

But, even if we agree that this is a win-win scenario, how do we get there?

We learn from Pirkei Avot that “Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” Simply, we each have our own special contribution to make to the critical work of tikkun olam. The same idea holds true for a business.

A successful employer would start by identifying needs within his or her organization, and continue by looking among jobseekers with disabilities to find outstanding candidates who could meet those needs. Conversely, people with disabilities seeking jobs need to focus on the skills and abilities that they bring to the table, just as would any other job seeker. Their path to employment involves education and perhaps vocational rehabilitation to hone and highlight these abilities, raising their appeal to employers.

A match made focusing upon the need of an employer and the abilities that the employee brings to bear is a recipe for success. Accommodations in this circumstance become a collective undertaking to best utilize the employees abilities to meet the need for which they were hired.

The law, always intended to be a floor rather than a ceiling for accommodation, drops away in importance as partners join together to find the employee his or her “place in the sun” so that both parties benefit. The employee benefits from the job at which he or she will succeed. The employer benefits from a well-matched worker who, trends show, is likely to stay with the organization longer than his or her able-bodied counterpart, and potentially provides help in accessing the market of people with disabilities. All because each party understood the place of the other.

Tradition teaches us what to do and how to do it, so I ask again, in the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”

Disability, Employment

Elephants, Taboos, and Poster Children

As anyone reading regularly will know, I am currently engaged in a job search. Recently, a friend who was making some introductions regarding the search asked if it was okay to reference my disability. This touched off a well worn internal conflict.

On the one hand, I thought about all of the times that I have experienced prejudice, and I wanted to say no. On the other hand, I thought about the motivators, from compassion to affirmative action, which might drive a contract to be more receptive, and I wanted to say yes.

The momentary conflict subsided. I remembered that my disability was so apparent, even from my resume, that avoiding it was nothing more than ignoring an elephant in the room, making something taboo when it did not need to be. But I could not stop thinking about the implications. Prejudice is a horrible thing, and I cannot blame anyone who, having the option of hiding their disability, chooses to do so. But what about the other side?

I was unquestionably a poster child. Yale used my face on their diversity newsletter when I was a student. I parlayed that into real face time, and used it to work with then President Richard Levin and his wonderful staff to make Yale a more inclusive place. Long before the photo, I concluded that, in light of my good but nor elite numbers, that my admission was in part due to the disability status. Though admited with soft high school numbers, I graduated from Yale cum laude with a 3.79 GPA. So, it seems that I got in in part because I have a disability, and we know that I was used for promotional purposes because of that disability, but I was also hugely academically successful, and was also able to partner with others to actually materially change opportunities for future Yalies with disabilities, something that I would not have been able to do if I were not both at Yale and openly a person with a disability.

What does this mean for my friend’s question? I do not want to be hired at a job at which I will not succeed, but I am a good lawyer, and reasonably confident that I will excell at any job for which I were to be hired. What then the harm if disability gets me through the door, other than that to say so is taboo?

Further, we are, as a society, fast approaching a tipping point in the way that the business world utilizes disability talent and reaches disability consumers. What if, just like at Yale, I have the opportunity to build from poster child status and in so doing gain the opportunity to bring my employer to the leading edge of these trends? This strikes me as a net positive, especially because, given i would also contibute as skilled lawyer in the legal position for which I was hired, it is all added value. Yet, in order to bring that value, I cannot reject being held up, but must rather embrace it. Again, it is easy for me since my large wheelchair makes disability the elephant in the room, ignored only by conscious choice. That said, it is not easy to overcome the taboos to embrace that role. So, sometimes I struggle.

I told my friend to use his judgment in the introductions, even as I will use my judgment should I be offered a job. I am curious, though, have others wrestled with this? Readers, those with disabilities and without, what do you think of embracing these taboos if the result can be real change, or even the less lofty but equally valuable goal of putting food on the table? I know that I will continue to wrestle with these questions each day, and I encourage you to consider them.