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“If it’s something you want to do, don’t let anyone stop you, especially yourself.” These words of wisdom came from Mat Rice, keynote speaker and self-advocate during Delaware’s fifth annual Disability Mentoring Day celebration held Oct. 16.

Rice, who is blind, learned to advocate for himself as a young teenager when he realized school planning meetings were about him — but didn’t include him. Feeling the services offered by his school were limited, he and his mother decided that he would move away from home to attend Maryland School for the Blind so he could achieve his goal of earning a high school diploma and prepare to live independently.

Rice had to learn to speak up for what he wanted. “In the end, it’s my life and I want to decide how to live it.” 

Ultimately he graduated with his diploma from the Maryland School for the Blind and now is an administrative support assistant at Shared Support Maryland. 

Disability Mentoring Day (DMD) is a national effort coordinated by the American Association of People with Disabilities. Sponsored by the Center for Disabilities Studies (CDS) in the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development, Disability Mentoring Day promotes career development for students and job-seekers with disabilities through job shadowing and hands-on career exploration.

Max Kursh, job developer and DMD event coordinator with the Transition, Education and Employment Model (TEEM) unit at CDS, helped lead the day’s effort. “We’re lucky to have had great support from the community over the years,” Kursh said. “Disability Mentoring Day started with 14 employers and in five years has grown to include 40 organizations.”

DMD provides both participants and employers a unique learning opportunity — in a way, functioning as an informational and experiential interview that can lead to employment. This year, 14 participants were able to select from 42 job sites enabling them to explore careers that truly interested them.  

DMD also allows employers to model positive leadership. Bahama Breeze Island Grille near Christiana Mall has participated for the past two years. “This is a great opportunity to get involved in the community and help people with disabilities,” said Michael Links, the restaurant’s general manager. 

Disability Mentoring Day is just one of Delaware’s initiatives to support employment of people with disabilities. Gov. Jack Markell has worked to increase the options for integrated employment for people with disabilities, signing into law the Employment First Act (HB 319), sponsored by Rep. Debra Heffernan, a 1983 UD alumna, which encourages state policies to give people with disabilities more career choices, greater independence, and increased opportunities to work in the community. 

Katie Howe, assistant director of Day Services at the DDDS, said, “I am inspired to see today’s young adults with disabilities pursue their vocational opportunities by participating in Disability Mentoring Day. It is exciting to see our community embrace the state’s Employment First initiative by supporting our young adults as they embark on their journey to employment.”

About TEEM

The CDS TEEM unit consists of several programs and research efforts involving young adults with disabilities. Through funding from Delaware’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) and the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services (DDDS), TEEM supports individuals with disabilities explore career paths as well as find and maintain jobs in the community. 

Article by Christina Johnston

Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson

This article appeared on UDaily on Nov. 7, 2013.