"Editor's Note: Jonah Selber's experience is an inspiring story — he has received the vocational and housing support that he needed to succeed. This feature is the start of a monthly series in which "The New Normal" will share about a person living successfully in a different kind of housing model for people with disabilities."
Jonah Selber, who was born with a developmental disability, is a longtime, successful employee of Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia where he serves as an office assistant in the Information Systems Department. He loves his job and never takes it for granted. Unlike 70 percent of working age Americans with disabilities who are out of the workforce, Jonah has been working for 17 years delivering important business documents and greeting customers in the Information Systems service center at one of the nation’s top hospitals.
Dwight Pedro Lewis, director of information systems at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, hired Selber in 1997. That hire has proven to be mutually beneficial.
“Jonah has grown since 1997. He works independently and navigates the campus better than I. Jonah has also made us better. We really think about what we’re asking, which has enhanced our communication skills. We’re proud that our staff is more diverse and more inclusive,” said Lewis. “Jonah brings so many talents and skills to the workplace: attention to detail, focus, and meticulousness. If it needs to be done by 10 a.m., it will be done by 10 a.m., not 10:05.”
More than 9 million Americans ages 18-64 with disabilities are outside the workforce and live on disability benefits. In Pennsylvania, there are 237,526 people ages 18-64 with disabilities who live on government benefits. But Selber is a taxpayer. He is a responsible worker with many friends.
Jonah is on the Board of The Schwartz Foundation which gives away about $2 million dollars a year. Jonah attends all the Schwartz Foundation Board meetings. Presently, each of the young Board members are allowed to give $15,000 a year to the charity (ies) of their choice. Thus, when he had a chance to direct giving from a local foundation, he decided to give $7,500 to his employer, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals’ Jefferson Foundation, and an additional $7,500 to Adults with Disabilities (ADDPA.org), which offers social opportunities to people with disabilities. Adults with Disabilities will use the funds to start the Jonah Selber Scholarship Fund and will honor Selber and others at an upcoming event on May 5.
Selber was born in 1973. His first few decades of life were marked with enormous struggle and chaos. When he aged out of his school programs, his parents searched the country for a program that would teach him independent living skills while giving him a sense of home and belonging.
In 1991, his mother, Judith Creed, a dynamo community organizer, helped create JCHAI, Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence. It was her goal not only to help her son, but others like him who deserved the dignity and sense of community that other people often take for granted. When JCHAI opened their first group home, Selber became one of their first residents. Since then, dozens of Pennsylvania residents have been able to achieve a better life because of JCHAI. Indeed, as word spread of the success of the program that Jonah inspired, others from around the country have moved to Pennsylvania to be a part of JCHAI.
With the help of JCHAI, Selber got his first job at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals. Back when he was first hired, few organizations and employers enabled people with disabilities. Even today, a recent Princeton study shows that most Americans do not see people with disabilities as being capable of working. However, a number of companies, including Walgreens, AMC Theaters, Ernst & Young, Office Max, and Toys R Us, have now proven that hiring people with disabilities can be great for business as they can make extremely loyal and talented workers.
JCHAI trained Selber to use public transportation so he could get to his job independently and taught him about dressing appropriately for work. He learned to navigate his community and make plans himself to go out with his new friends. Eventually, Selber learned enough that he felt ready to move out of the group home and into a supported apartment, also run by JCHAI. He has advanced in his work at Jefferson and has become a role model for dozens of other adults with disabilities who are involved with JCHAI and also now have jobs.
Selber now lives with a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment. They have several friends in the building. He gets himself to work every day, takes care of his apartment, cooks and cleans and makes his own social plans. He is a valued employee who gets paid a good salary, with benefits that include vacation and personal days and a retirement plan.
Mr. Lewis said, “Jonah has become part of our family. We all support and coach Jonah. And he supports all of us.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.