Mentoring In Real Life

The start of the New Year marks the beginning of a month-long salute to mentoring, led by a Presidential Proclamation for National Mentoring Month and a variety of activities coordinated by MENTOR: The National Partnership, including an opportunity on Thank Your Mentor Day to show gratitude to mentors.  It is also a great time to examine this critical but sometimes overlooked resource that can serve as a key bridge to meaningful careers, community inclusion and self-sufficiency.

There actually is a Key Bridge in Washington, DC (named after Francis Scott Key), which connects suburban Virginia to the District of Columbia.  Thousands of people commute over the bridge every day from their homes to places of work.  The onramps are sometimes jammed, and traffic can be heavy, but everyone eventually reaches their desired destination.


The Importance of Mentoring

In the world of work, mentoring can be an essential connector that enables students to explore professional fields and learn about job-seeking strategies.  To carry along the Key Bridge metaphor: if school represents a highway, and the destination is employment, then having a mentor can provide a bridge between them.  Mentoring is one of the few tested and proven effective tools in building a career – this is true for all young people, but even more so for youth with disabilities who face additional road blocks in entering — and remaining — in the workforce.

This point was reinforced by an article in the Journal of Rehabilitation, “It Takes a Village: Influences on Former SSI/DI Beneficiaries Who Transition to Employment.”  Twenty-two individuals reported role models, parental messages and mentors influenced their ability to obtain and maintain self-sustaining employment.   Specifically, the report highlighted the following forms of mentoring to be important:

  • The influence of mentors. Although the family was the most commonly cited influence on employment for the participants, professionals such as college professors, service providers, and employed individuals with disabilities, including benefits planners and community leaders, were also commonly mentioned.
  • The power of mentors with disabilities. The participants in this study were driven to be self-sufficient through the influence, motivation and modeling of other successful people who have disabilities. The mentoring relationship took many forms, from one of general exposure to people with similar disabilities, to a support group, to a close individual friendship. Regardless of the form of mentoring, the effect on the participants was cited as a major factor in their successful transition to work.
  • Support of peers. Many of the participants attributed their drive and success to the mentors they had in their lives. In some cases, peer mentoring occurred in the form of a support group of individuals with similar disabilities.


Internships Benefit from Integrated Mentoring

Along with mentoring, internships are considered another key connector to successful, long-term employment which triggers financial independence and social inclusion.  But experience and research have shown that internships are more effective when supported by mentoring.  This became clear to the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) in developing the AAPD Summer Internship Program.  After the first few years, feedback from interns and prospective employers led to establishing a mentoring component in the program; interns who have gone on to successful careers often cite their mentors as making a critical difference.

Amir Abdolrahimi, an AAPD intern who’s been working at AAPD’s headquarters, attests to the value of mentoring:

“I believe that mentoring is vital to the lives of our youth, but especially those in the disability community. I lost my vision six years ago as a result of an accident, and there’s no way that I would be where I am today had it not been for the mentoring that I’ve received. My mentors have led by example, and have pushed me to challenge myself by going above and beyond my capabilities. But most importantly, they’ve taught me to believe in myself!”

Furthermore, AAPD’s Chief Operating Officer, Michael Murray, attributes much of his career success to his own mentors:

“AAPD has a long history of investing in the next generation of leaders in the disability community. One of my mentors, Andy Imparato, former President and CEO of AAPD, brought me to Washington, DC and has guided me through my career. He even helped me pick my first nice dress shoes. I thank Andy for taking his time to mentor me. I am one of many examples of AAPD’s commitment to mentoring youth with disabilities. Developing future leaders is the bedrock of the AAPD mission and the foundation of our future.”

Of course, mentors often cite the value they receive through the relationship. Andy Imparato, Michael’s mentor and now the Executive Director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), highlights the importance of learning from mentees and how mentoring is vital to the disability rights movement:

“I have always felt the importance of learning from mentors, those who came before us and lay the groundwork so we can continue forward in the movement.  My mentors, including Tom Harkin, Justin Dart and Tony Coelho, helped me better understand policy development from both a government and advocacy perspective. I am indebted to them for their time and believe it is my responsibility to mentor others. Being Michael Murray’s mentor, if you know Michael, is anything but a one-way conversation. I have enjoyed Michael’s infectious positive energy and strong core values. I also value the reverse mentoring that occurs as well – Michael is an important natural support for me and helps keep me focused on things that matter.”


National Disability Mentoring Coalition

In order to increase the awareness, quality and impact of mentoring for youth and adults with disabilities, 19 organizations have joined together to form the National Disability Mentoring Coalition. Member organizations share core values and align with the Coalition’s initiatives to streamline communication, standardize and systematize data collection, reduce duplication of efforts, increase mentoring opportunities, and improve outcomes for youth and adults with disabilities.

The Coalition integrates mentoring into its own operational model to transfer historical knowledge, incorporate reverse mentoring to generate innovation, and develop new opportunities for individuals with disabilities across their lifespan.

The Coalition launched the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame, honoring an inaugural class of 25 disability leaders and mentors to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  As Andy Imparato has been a key mentor and influencer of many individuals in the disability community (including AAPD’s Michael Murray!), he was inducted in the inaugural class.

Today, the Coalition announces the opening of the 2016 Nominations for the Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame. The purpose of these nominations and awards is to honor individuals and organizations who are making a significant difference in the lives of youth and adults with disabilities through mentoring and to raise awareness about the importance of mentoring for individuals with disabilities. After submitting a nomination, the nominator receives an email with text to send to their mentor to say thanks.

Nominations are NOW OPEN and are being accepted until May 1, 2016.  This will help us capture mentoring models and best practices across the nation.  And it will help us thank a lot of people doing a lot of good across the nation.

Furthermore, today, on National #ThankYourMentor Day, we thank MENTOR: The National partnership, for joining the Coalition and being our mentor in development and a key bridge to navigating the mainstream mentoring community.  David Shapiro, Elizabeth Santiago and Diane Quest are partners in our work to include mentees and mentors with disabilities in mainstream mentoring programs and we THANK YOU!

In closing, we share these stories from Amir, Michael and Andy to bring attention to mentoring people with disabilities in real life.  It is our hope that one day – with the support of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition and others who share our vision — there will be more mentors available to help connect youth and adults with disabilities to careers and full community inclusion.


Rayna Aylward and Derek Shields
Co-Chairs, National Disability Mentoring Coalition


p.s.  Please keep the story going on social media.  Share your mentoring story and use #DisabilityMentors  #mentorIRL.  Follow the NDMC on Twitter: @DisMentors


“It Takes a Village: Influences on Former SSI/DI Beneficiaries Who Transition to Employment.”  The Journal of Rehabilitation, Volume 80, No. 4. Oct/Nov/Dec 2014. Marjorie F. Olney, Charles Compton, Mark Tucker, Deborah Emery-Flores, and Reyna Zuniga.

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