Keynote: Pre-conceptions and Navigating Careers
KATE FIALKOWSKI 0:02
Hi, this is Kate Fialkowski with the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. Welcome to our first segment on our Dischange 20 online. We're going to talk about preconceptions and navigating careers. Joining me this morning is Koert Wehberg, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Mayor's Commission on people with disabilities. Koert. Welcome, and thanks for joining by phone.
KOERT WEHBERG 0:27
Okay, thanks for having me. You know, glad to get this done even though certainly difficult times, but glad to see that hasn't stopped Temple from putting this on.
KATE FIALKOWSKI 0:40
Well, thank you very much, and thanks for your flexibility and making yourself available to do this call. We really appreciate it.
KOERT WEHBERG 0:49
KATE FIALKOWSKI 0:50
So Koert, um, tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to Philadelphia and to the Mayor's office.
KOERT WEHBERG 1:01
So, I grew up in New York City, folks don't hold that against me, I did move here after all. I am blind, I have some mental illness. And I had parents who were very, very committed to having me be included in whether it was school or other aspects of society, and I think that's really shaped who I became.
When I was a teenager. I always thought about starting with being a lawyer back then, during for some audience members who may not remember but when OJ Simpson was on trial, I watched the entire trial over that summer and I really, really thought I was gonna be criminal lawyer.
But ended up doing getting into Disability Rights Law, ending up at Syracuse University, which has a Disability Law and Policy Program, so I ended up getting a law degree there and certificate and Disability Law and Policy and really started right away got a nice fellowship doing disability rights, legal work in New York City, at New York lawyers for the public interest, representing low income folks of color with disabilities, whether employment cases, public accommodations, fair housing work, and I'm also person color. I forgot to add that.
So I really did start right away, trying to help other folks with disabilities be included in the community, whether it was getting jobs or getting housing, then moved to Philadelphia, actually, because my now wife, Christine, was from Philly and we were actually matched up at a wedding and she lived in Philly. So I decided well, New York, I can leave you behind.
So I moved to Philly.
KATE FIALKOWSKI 3:02
And a big shout out to Christine because she then is a Philly native. So you gained it back what you lost in New York, you gained back with Christine?
KOERT WEHBERG 3:12
Oh, absolutely. I totally did. I don't I don't miss New York at all. I live on Mt Airy, I take the train down to City Hall, I worked at Disability Rights PA for many years before this. Doing legal work around the state and decided that I would instead of suing the government all the time trying to see if I could get anything done while working for government.
So I've been an executive director for let's see, about nine months now. So yeah, so that's, that's my, my story as far as getting here.
KATE FIALKOWSKI 3:53
Well, welcome to Philadelphia. Apparently the land of gritty which is fairly new, like a fairly new character for us, although being gritty is certainly a long standing characterization of Philadelphia. So welcome.
KOERT WEHBERG 4:12
KATE FIALKOWSKI 4:12
This particular symposium is about combating implicit bias and employment. And I just want to pick up a little bit on something that you talked about when we're talking about implicit bias. You also said that you worked with people who were low income persons of color, people with disabilities. And these are all groups that historically have been stigmatized, discriminated against and there is bias. So can you tell us a little bit about disability bias and maybe intersectionality along with that?
KOERT WEHBERG 4:54
Sure so, implicit bias, I mean, a lot of people you know, think about, you know, when they hear bias think of direct bias far as maybe people calling people disabilities the R word or, you know, people of color, the N word or other derogatory terms or other other sort of direct discrimination but with bias, I mean, implicit bias we have, as far as what I've seen and experienced people sort of deciding what people with disabilities or other groups should do, you know, without maybe telling them directly, you know, sort of putting people in slots, that person with disabilities going to go work in a sheltered workshop, that person, they make a great janitor. Or maybe they won't even work at all, they're just gonna collect a check.
So, sort of not even maybe thinking about, you know, well, that person could be a lawyer or a doctor, or whatever profession they so choose. So we're sort of putting people in boxes. So not even giving somebody a chance, to show what they can do,
Also thinking that, you know, the person is responsible for, you know, where they, you know, the place they got in life. So, somebody low income must be that way because they didn't work hard enough for somebody with disability, even though they may or may not have, you know, might be their fault, but they have disability, you know, it's, you know, there has to be the ones to, you know, alter themselves if they want to be, you know, get this particular job or achieve this particular goal that's on them. It's not on the society at large. So, sort of a very broad thing that, I would say that encompasses implicit bias, at least the way I've seen it, experienced it.
I guess, one little anecdote there as I've had folks over the years, maybe, you know, a counselor or teacher and you know, I'm gonna say majority of folks, were helpful, but people saying, Oh, you know, They told me that. I'd say I wanted to be a lawyer. Oh, that's very nice, and like, hearing that voice, they're like, Yeah, that's it, you're never gonna do that, or, you know, that's a really nice goal, I think you'd be better thinking about something more quote unquote "achievable".
So, that is sort of how I see implict bias
Kathryn Fialkowski 7:17
Yeah, so tell us more about that notion. I hear it all the time that certain professions are just off limits for, for persons with disabilities, you know? Just like you're saying, so tell us a little bit more about that.
KOERT WEHBERG 7:37
So, I think what, you know, we, you know, off limits as in, you know, instead of we think people think that, oh, you know, he can't he or she, or whomever the person cannot be a particular profession. You know, and that's because they would have to do so many things to clinical overcome their disability.
But, I'd rather hear people say, Well, what can we do to make this profession? You know, more, you know, accessible and open to everyone. So, you know, the standard being, of course, can we make reasonable accommodations, which is a legal term and also just beyond getting something in a alternative format, or put in a ramp for a wheelchair user, you know, making the people open, making the professional open to these people as far as well, welcoming them, giving them opportunities to, to try the profession early on, whether it's an internship or observe the profession.
You know, similarly, you brought up intersectionality you know, some of these professions can be expensive to get into whether it's because people didn't have the education or can afford the education, giving them the chance through grants or scholarships instead you know, making them work 17 jobs to get there.
You know, so I think that, you know, professions are not opening themselves to welcome marginalized communities, a lot of the times they expect marginalized communities to somehow pull themselves up and magically get there without help. Or if they think that will that's not our job to help them other people will help them. Those those quote unquote, systems, whether, you know, the government or the parents or somebody else will help them get there. Not us though. If they magically ended up here at our doorstep, and they've got the credentials that we've decided they need, well, then that's great, then their success story, and they can be an inspiration and we can put them on the cover of our newsletter.
KATE FIALKOWSKI 9:54
Well, there was a lot in what you said there. I you know, I'd like to just pick up on, on one of the things that you said, this idea of overcoming.
And so there's a lot of complexity to this idea of overcoming and as you said, Where should the scaffolding be placed? And and who's responsible? Is this all you know, on the individual or, you know, what is the responsibility of society? So what is your thought on that? Also, your professional thought on that who is responsible for this, the scaffolding?
KOERT WEHBERG 10:54
I'll go backwards so professionally, I think that there are lots of different folks that are responsible. I think that, you know, the, you know, if it's if it's employment or since we're talking about employment, you know, certainly employers responsible for not only accommodating folks but for recruiting diverse talent and, and I didn't use that word talent, you know, you know, even though his diversity is everywhere, and people might roll their eyes and think it's a cliche at this point, but it really is true.
I mean people with diverse experiences have diverse viewpoints to offer help make the employer productive and increase productivity. So I think actually genuinely being open to what people have to offer and say, You know, I think that there are systems that are responsible, whether it be education or, or voc rehab.
You know, so those particular systems, Social Security, as far as helping folks get a leg up and get some benefits which could lead to employment. And yes, the person with a disability is certainly responsible, you know, as far as not, you know, if they are given opportunities taking them on or if people try to hold them back saying, you know what I, you know, I'm not gonna listen to you holding me back, I'm gonna keep pushing forward. And, you know, take the opportunities as I think I deserve.
And getting back to overcoming, you know, people, you know, sometimes think, you know, whether they don't have a disability like, Oh, well, once the person achieves this has overcome, quote, unquote, and they start this job or experience and then that's, you know, then everything's, you know, the disabilities, you know, it's not a problem anymore. Everything, you know, we're all happy. You know, it's great. Yeah, roll the credits.
But, in fact, disability doesn't end after, after someone achieves you know, whether it's get a job or whether they have to, you know, manage their disability every day and how it intersects to a particular job.
And that's you know, whether, you know someone who's part of another marginalized group. If they're low income, they have to learn how to get maybe they're not used to being a professional environment or, or managing money or so forth. These are things that people manage on a day-to-day basis, it might not be visible, might not be worthy of another inspirational cover page or news article.
But, you know, people do have to, you know, deal with on a day-to-day basis, how they're going to, you know, do their job, manage accommodations, deal with transportation, deal with, you know, if they're just not having a good day, you know, for the average person without a disability, if they have a bad day, maybe that's no big deal.
But maybe, you know, for example, you know, maybe a bad day for me is walking the wrong way and getting lost, or my mental illness isn't going well that day, yeah, maybe getting to work late or not being as productive. So, for you know, that can be.
These are things that people have to deal with. And so that that's why overcoming sort of means, when you hear that word, you think that there's an end to
KATE FIALKOWSKI 14:16
KOERT WEHBERG 14:17
dealing with a disability when in fact it really just continues.
KATE FIALKOWSKI 14:22
Thank you so much for that. Um, I wonder if you could give us some advice? What professional advice would you give to students who might be listening to this students with disabilities?
What advice would you give them in how to go about choosing a career or what people say to them when they're choosing careers?
KOERT WEHBERG 14:56
So first, I would say start with finding a career that you want. You know, without, I mean, certainly you can consult people who you find supportive, but I would say, start with what you're interested in, don't go to a counselor or you know, you know, a quote unquote, disability professional and say, Well, what do you think I can do? I think that's rather limiting.
Now, you're not asking what you want to do you're ask somebody what they think they can do you think, you know, you're sort of putting yourself already in a box?
Not saying that, you know, asking this question is, you know, saying that people that you're asking are not well intentioned, or that they're somehow malicious. Anyway, just, if you ask somebody, what they think you can do, well, then they're, going to give you an answer.
You know, they're gonna say, Well, I think you can be a terrific nurse's aide. Instead, maybe you want to be an actual registered nurse. And again, that's no denigration to nurse's aides and it's profession or any profession here. Just you yourself. Decide first, what you want.
And then I would then find people who, you know, are supportive, whether it's family, friends, or again (inaubile) or, or somebody in your University. And say alright, I want to be, I want to be a nurse. How can I make that happen? You know, how can you help me make that system accessible? You know, how can the nursing school help me get accommodation so I can do my rotations?
I don't know why I pick nursing because I'm certainly not a good nurse because I've never done it but whatever, we're going to go with it and nursing school thing for me later.
You know, how can we change the environment to help me instead of, you know, how, why should I change to fit the environment, you know, that's really not how it should work
And continue to you know, not saying that the person really shouldn't think about how they will, you know what accommodations they need. But I think focusing first on what they want to do, and then going from there is important and also, if people tell you, you know, you go to career services or, or someone, then you start you know, working for an employer and you start talking about your goals and if they shut you down you need to say, thanks, I appreciate your advice, and then you move on to you have to keep me up to keep finding someone who's going to support you.
You know, it's, it's, you know, there are barriers. There are ways to deal with them. At least there should be and if people just tell you, there's a big difference between telling somebody that they can't be a nurse versus someone saying, okay, you want to be a nurse now, we need to figure out how to
KATE FIALKOWSKI 17:53
How to do it. Yep
KOERT WEHBERG 17:54
Yeah, how to make the building accessible or how to make you How can you access the curriculum or you equipment. You know, that's that's reasonable. You know, it's it's reasonable to discuss the potential obstacles instead of just shutting somebody
KATE FIALKOWSKI 18:07
Instead of shutting somebody down. Well, part of what you're saying there is really finding people who lift you up. And we're kind of coming to the end of our time. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention, of course, that we're in an extraordinary situation today with the corona virus and as a leader in disability advocacy, a lawyer and a representative of the mayor's office, do you have any advice for people with disabilities in this moment in time?
KOERT WEHBERG 18:49
Yes, I would say that, you know, this is a very difficult and scary time. And, you know, obviously, like everyone else, they should stay healthy and safe number one, but also you know, this, you know, while things are a lot of things are on pause, you know, I would say that they should still focus on, you know, their continuing to find their goal of, you know, whatever job they're looking for. So as I'm talking to students here, you know, I know, a lot of you are taking classes online, or on a very, very long extended spring break. You know, I think, you know, at some point that spring break needs to it needs to end and you know.
I'm working from home a lot of people are so I think that you can start looking for jobs at home and thinking about what there will be, you know, whether it's in a few months or several months, life, will come back to whatever normal is and you will graduate. Whether it's online or you know, some ceremony of some kind, I do think I do feel badly for this, these students, that their life will go on and they'll have to look for work.
And I think that, you know, there will be, life will continue and you will have to apply for jobs, and you'll have to find people to lift you up.
You know, I know it's a scary time, but we've had scary times before throughout the years. And I think people with disabilities, I think they just have to remember to keep their voices out there. You know, there's a lot of, you know, news about, you know, how vulnerable people are, you know, people have chronic conditions, and they may be more limited as far as what, you know, what they can be exposed to.
But I would say that they should still continue to move forward with with their lives, you know, might have to be from a computer and a phone almost exclusively right now. But I think that they should continue to prepare for when we lift the stay at home orders emergency.
You know, and you know it can be certainly discouraging. It can be boring. But I would say that, you know, again, push forward, still find those people to lift you up, communicate with them, whether it's FaceTime, Zoom, you know, stay stay involved, try not to be isolated. It's hard people disability are often isolated, you know, for no fault of their own.
So just hang in there. It will work out in some way and there will be will be jobs to fill.
KATE FIALKOWSKI 21:46
Thank you. Thank you so much. So, there you have the last words from Koert. Stay involved, keep your voices raised and find people who lift you up.
Koert I want to thank you so much for being with us today. And I look forward to speaking with you again in the near future. Thank you for your time.
KOERT WEHBERG 22:09
Thanks for having me.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai