Add To Favorites
Living the success other disabled people are capable of
Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) - 11/28/2014
Nov. 28--Jonah Selber is an unlikely philanthropist.
When he was born, doctors told his parents that he was severely retarded, so damaged that he should be put in an institution for the rest of his life.
"Thank goodness," his mother said, "I was young, strong, in denial, and unwilling to accept that condemnation."
Judith Creed, a speech language pathologist, has dedicated most of her life to helping her son overcome a daunting array of physical and intellectual problems. She stood by him through years of therapy and multiple surgeries, enrolled him in schools where he learned to become more independent, and, several years ago, even gave him one of her kidneys.
Now 41, Selber has exceeded the most audacious expectations his parents ever dared to dream for him.
For 17 years, he has worked at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he is considered a model employee.
And while the income from his 20-hour weeks and Social Security disability payments are not enough to support him, let alone create a surplus, Selber is able to give back in a way rarely possible for people with disabilities.
Through his stepfather's private foundation, Selber recently donated $15,000 to charities close to his heart.
"I feel like one of the celebrities in Hollywood," Selber said, describing the thrill of giving money to good causes.
On the job earlier this week, Selber was hurrying down Chestnut Street, delivering business cards to various offices in the Jefferson system.
A middle-aged man with thick dark hair, wearing a red fleece jacket, black trousers, and scholarly glasses, he blended into the stream of pedestrians. No one noticed the subtle tic as he bobbed his head, waiting to cross an intersection, or the unusual determination that drove him to heedlessly splash through a puddle, as he headed to his destination.
Selber is aware of his limitations. "I feel a little bit different," he said. "But not much."
The tremor in his hands, trouble with hand-eye coordination, and difficulty with numbers do not interfere with his work.
"At Jefferson," he said, "the bosses, they appreciate and love me there."
A few years ago, when Selber's previous job at Jefferson was eliminated, his bosses were determined to find him a new position.
"Jonah keeps this place going," said Larry Lawhorn, his supervisor in the department of information services and technology. "He is attentive to details and focused, and he's highly intelligent."
Selber is exceptional in many respects -- but not in his success at holding a job, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility USA, an advocacy group in Washington.
"Only 20 percent of individuals with intellectual disabilities are employed," Mizrahi said. "But unless there's another disability that is particularly involved, almost all of them should be able to work."
Her organization aims to correct misperceptions.
"People who have an intellectual disability usually qualify for about $14,000 a year from the government, plus medical coverage," she said. "The expectation is that they will sit on their parents' couch, wait for them to die, then sit on their brother's couch."
These low expectations, she said, lead to isolation, poverty, and low self-esteem.
There are some signs of improvement, Mizrahi said. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which recently passed Congress with bipartisan support, will help move more young people with disabilities into the workforce. And Mizrahi said she has increasingly heard about programs such as Project Search, which was started by a nurse in Ohio and trains 2,700 people with cognitive disabilities each year for jobs in nursing homes, hotels, and health-care facilities, including Bryn Mawr Hospital.
About 70 percent of the program's graduates are employed. And although most earn only minimum wage, Mizrahi said, the extra $10,000 a year can be life-changing.
"Someone like Jonah, who has a job, can go to the movies, pay for the ticket himself, and even take a friend," she said. The psychological benefits of getting a paycheck and feeling valued "are huge."
Selber lives in a small community of adults with intellectual disabilities who are supervised and supported by the staff of Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence, a nonprofit his mother helped found in 1987.
Every evening, the group gathers for a communal dinner. They are moving to a new apartment complex near Bala Cynwyd, and this week, Selber, one of the first to relocate, has been hosting the meal in his two-bedroom unit, where he is living alone for the first time.
After work a few days ago, he rode to his new home for the first time on SEPTA's Regional Rail line. "I have so much respect and so much pride over what he's been able to accomplish," said his sister, Jennifer Selber, chief of homicide in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
"He couldn't speak until he was 5. He couldn't sit up, he couldn't walk, he couldn't even eat his food well for a long time. Every normal developmental stage was a mountain for him to climb," she said. "I didn't hear him say, 'I can't.' He would just always try."
Three years ago, their stepfather, Robert Schwartz, invited Jennifer, Jonah, and their brother, Jesse, an associate professor of plastic surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, to join the board of his foundation, along with his two children from a previous marriage. This year, each received $15,000 to donate to causes of their choice.
At board meetings, they must make a case for chosen charities. "Jonah has been terrific," said Schwartz, president of Food Sciences Corp., a Mount Laurel company that researches and manufactures nutritional products.
Jonah donated $7,500 each to Jefferson and to Adults With Developmental Disabilities, a nonprofit based in Jenkintown that organizes social activities for people like him. It was Selber's idea, Schwartz said, to fund a scholarship so that others less fortunate can take part.
The organization honored Selber for his contribution at a ceremony in May.
He delivered each word of his acceptance speech with precision.
"In real life, people with disabilities can be very lonely and isolated," he said. "I am lucky."
(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC