In Real Life Blog Series: Building the Disability Inclusion Pipeline through Mentoring

Derek Shields, Founder and Co-Chair of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition
December 5th, 2016
Posted In: Awareness, Campaigns, In Real Life

In the United States, the disability community represents approximately 56.7 million people; roughly 1 in 5 people or 19% of the total population. However, only 59% of youth with disabilities age 18-20 attend post-secondary education compared to 72% of youth without a disability. And in a recent national Trends in Disability Employment Report, labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities was 31.3 percent compared to working-age people without disabilities at 76.5 percent.

Mentoring programs are helping close these gaps but much more needs to be done to give youth with disabilities better opportunities In Real Life. This December, we are sharing resources, stories, tips for mentors and mentees to help us all learn more about one another and come together in support of opportunity and inclusion for all.

According to a study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation[i], individuals with disabilities face low expectations about their ability to work and live independently.  Fortunately, the study also shows mentoring can help develop higher expectations among youth with disabilities and those around them. To meet this need, the National Disability Mentoring Coalition (NDMC) serves to increase the awareness, quality, and impact of mentoring for youth and adults with disabilities. The NDMC is delighted to report that programs and individuals are breaking down barriers and upending longstanding stereotypes across the country.

As Co-Chair of the Coalition, I have had the opportunity to learn about disability mentoring programs, honor exemplary mentors, and interact with mentees. This year, while honoring the Class of 2016 inductees to the Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame, I was able to learn more about the achievements of NDMC Members and directly engage with hundreds of young people with disabilities participating in programs.

I’d like to introduce you to two individuals who stood out for me this year.


Derek and Dale standing on top of USDA headquarters


In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its commitment to support disability mentoring with the NDMC as a means to increase inclusion and strengthen disability community engagement and talent acquisition. As part of this commitment, the USDA hosted Disability Mentoring Day, providing Washington, DC area high school and college students with disabilities the opportunity to explore USDA careers.  The USDA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration, Yeshimebet Abebe, welcomed the students and encouraged them to “[t]ry everything today.  We look forward to you exploring USDA.  We want you here!”

This message of inclusion inspired the students, including Dale. A delightful young man with a positive attitude and strong work ethic, Dale has diverse interests in music, hospitality and customer service.  While shadowing a USDA employee responsible for food service and cafeteria operations, Dale had direct encounters with individuals working in food preparation, point of sale, and the customer service center, as well as the Office of the White House Liaison, an assistive technology center, and senior leadership.  Dale introduced himself to each person he encountered – even greeting individuals in the hallways.  Dale is clearly a networking blackbelt!

As a young person with a developmental disability, Dale is also a current participant in Project SEARCH as he seeks to transition from school to work through an internship program.  During lunch, Dale told me that his grandmother worked at USDA and he would like to as well.  USDA would be lucky to have him.


Sandra at the networking and flash mentoring workshop.


In November, I was fortunate to conduct a workshop on networking with aspiring media professionals with disabilities at a White House Forum on Disability Narratives in the Media.  As part of the Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 call-to-action to increase participation of people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera, Scott Silveri, the creator and producer of Speechless, talked about developing a TV show that featured and starred a young individual with Cerebral Palsy.  Sandra, an aspiring actor, writer and videographer from Massachusetts with mild Cerebral Palsy, asked Scott how he came up with the idea for the show.  Scott responded that he grew up with a brother with Cerebral Palsy, and he wanted to share a story about how his family – all families in fact – sometimes get things right and sometimes get things wrong.

Later that day, Sandra had the opportunity to take part in flash mentoring and resumé reviews with a variety of media and film professionals.  She also attended my networking and mentoring workshop and then immediately approached a professional in the room and exchanged business cards — something she would not have done before the session! Soon after, Sandra told us the effect of the event and the role models she met, saying: “If they can do it, there is no reason I can’t do it, too!”


In the years ahead, disability mentoring programs will continue to raise expectations and build confidence for youth with disabilities to move from school to careers and community inclusion.  I ask you to build disability inclusion into your own work.  One organization and one person at a time we will help people of all abilities, people like Dale and Sandra, contribute in their professions and communities of choice.


About the Author: Derek Shields is a founder and current Co-Chair of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition.  He has spent over 21 years working in disability services.  Follow Derek on Twitter @derekshieldsPMP.  Learn more about the Coalition at or on Twitter @DisMentors.


[i] Journal of Rehabilitation.  It Takes a Village:  Influences on Former SSI/DI Beneficiaries Who Transition to Employment  2014, Volume 80, No. 4, 38-5138

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  • Thanks Derek,

    What a great article and thrilled that you, and the National Disability Mentoring Coalition met Sandra through our Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 initiative to increase employment of people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera and improve disability portrayals. This is just the beginning and we welcome your partnership. Thanks for your leadership!

  • Nancy Rasmussen says:

    Hi my name isNancy and I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy that affects my left side of my body and speech. I was wondering if I could become a friend or a mentor to someone that has cerebral palsy someone who can look up too or relate too. I want to share my life and troubles while I was growing up as a child. Getting made fun of, getting beat, being called names,and now that I’m 40 years old and have a 16 year old daughter and not letting my handicap run my life I want to share my life and troubles and even my knowledge with people with cerebral palsy

    • MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership says:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for reaching out to MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and for your interest in youth mentoring.

      If you go to you will find our national database of mentoring programs. Typing in your zip code will provide a list of the different mentoring programs in your area. You may find relevant opportunities by selecting “Youth with Disabilities” or “Physical Disabilities/Special Care Needs” from the Youth Served drop-down menu. Please feel free to reach out to any of these programs and let them know about the specific mentoring opportunity you are seeking. Thank you again for reaching out, and we wish you the best of luck!

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