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Friday, December 4, 2020

Disability Leader Discovers New Role During COVID-19 Crisis

Matan Koch spoke about how his role as the director of RespectAbility California and Jewish leadership has changed.

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The coronavirus lockdown has tested everyone’s resilience and ability to roll with the punches — physically, mentally and emotionally. And on the days when things seem insurmountable, sometimes a funny cat meme or an inspirational quote can help lift you out of your funk. But if you really want to be inspired, then the best people to look to are those who grapple with adversity every single day.

Matan Koch is one of those people.

The 38-year-old who lives in Los Angeles is a quadriplegic, born with cerebral palsy. But that didn’t stop him being admitted to Yale University at the age of 16, serving as his alma mater’s president of the student disability community, becoming a Senate-confirmed appointee on the National Council on Disability in the Barack Obama administration, and working as a consultant for Jewish organizations, advising Jewish professionals and students on how to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

But as the son of a rabbi, Koch decided his next move was to attend rabbinical school. That is, until he was approached by philanthropist and former political consultant Jennifer Mizrahi, founder of RespectAbility — the Rockville, Md.-based nonprofit working to erase stigmas and advance opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Mizrahi was looking to expand the organization to Los Angeles and she set her sights on Koch. “If you go on Google to figure out who are the smart people that you really want to know about, in five minutes you know that you want to know Matan Koch,” Mizrahi told the Journal. In persuading Koch to take the position, she told him, “I am hoping you will come to see this as the alternative path, that rabbinical school was not for you.”

“We’ll find out once I have been walking the path for a while,” Koch replied.

He’s been walking that path since December, serving as the director of RespectAbility California and Jewish leadership. He also has led the group’s training and job placement program, Project Moses. Drawing on his legal background (after graduating from Yale, Koch studied law at Harvard and then spent a decade as a commercial litigation lawyer in New York), he also serves as general counsel at RespectAbility.

Yet like everyone else in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, Koch has found himself adapting to a new normal, and advocating for much-needed support to address the specific needs now facing the disability community.

“I could be sitting at home bored, but instead I am leading the charge to save and improve lives in the community, especially for people with disabilities, which is my mandate,” he told the Journal. “I normally talk access to Jewish life and employment but you can’t have access to any of those unless you are alive.”

“I could be sitting at home bored, but instead I am leading the charge to save and improve lives in the community.” — Matan Koch

That’s not hyperbole. As Mizrahi told the Journal, given their underlying health issues, ongoing economic struggles and unique living circumstances, people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“In a way I am privileged,” Koch noted. “At a time of difficulty and fear, I get to actively [do what I love].” That includes ensuring the disability community’s needs are being addressed. The three most important areas, Koch said, are food security, employment and health care. “Our goal is to be able to answer all three in the affirmative,” he said. “It is sort of the nature of the world that people who are the most vulnerable are the least thought of when times are hard.”

Nationwide, approximately 11 million people with disabilities are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and 1 million people with disabilities in California are enrolled in CalFresh — the statewide version of SNAP.

While SNAP recipients can use their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, known as food stamps, to purchase food, most states did not permit SNAP enrollees to use food stamps for online food purchases before the outbreak of the pandemic. In April, RespectAbility wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address this gap. As part of a coalition called the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities, RespectAbility successfully advocated for that expansion in several states, including California.

“It’s a very big deal,” Mizrahi said. “We’re talking about billions of dollars of food and millions of people’s ability to eat safely during a pandemic. It is something we never envisioned working on, because no one envisions a COVID-19 crisis, but it was very clear that it was what the community needed most urgently.”

While Koch is employed and therefore not eligible for food assistance, he is nonetheless limited in his ability to shop for groceries. He is unable to buy fresh produce on his own because he cannot put fruits and vegetables away in his refrigerator without the help of his overnight caregiver.

A member of IKAR, at the start of the pandemic, members brought him meals. He also has received frozen meal deliveries from Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. “[I am] subsisting on things I can throw in the microwave,” he said.

“We’re talking about billions of dollars of food and millions of people’s ability to eat safely during a pandemic. It is something we never envisioned working on, because no one envisions a COVID-19 crisis, but it was very clear that it was what the [disability] community needed most urgently.” — Jennifer Mizrahi

Aside from his overnight caregiver, Koch is very much on his own during the day in his motorized wheelchair. Living on his own, he said is far safer during this pandemic than the institutional care facilities many of his disabled peers call home, where, he noted, the  population is at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 if receiving treatment in densely packed settings. “The deeper one’s disability the less one can socially isolate,” Koch said.

Regarding unemployment in the disability community, Koch wrote an article in the Journal in November stating, “The employment rate of people with disabilities in Los Angeles ranks lower than that of the lowest ranked state, West Virginia, at less than 23%, more than 14 points below the national average.”

Now, with the lockdown resulting in more than 30 million people filing for jobless benefits, Koch said, “Now we’re looking at massive widespread unemployment.”

In October, columnist Marc Saltzman wrote in USA Today the new trend of working from home could lead to employers more readily hiring disabled people, but Koch said he did not think that would be the case.

“Attitudinal barriers — the perceptions of people with disabilities, are a far bigger barrier to employment than anything physical or logistical,” he said. “I don’t think working from home will change that, and I am quite worried that with millions of nondisabled Americans looking for work, people with disabilities will be left out.”

Matan Koch meets with the disability inclusion committee of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. Photo by Aaron Benau

RespectAbility has been working to offset these concerns, offering general guidance to the disability community during the pandemic, including how they can receive their $1,200 economic stimulus payments. Before Passover, when it became clear people would be holding their seders via video-conferencing, the organization promoted virtual events in American Sign Language on its website, respectability.org. Currently, it is preparing to launch a virtual Jewish disability access and inclusion training and credentialing program, from June 23-July 30, spearheaded by Koch.

Leah Siskin Moz, director of wellness at Hillel International, told the Journal that Koch is the perfect person to lead these trainings. Moz worked with Koch when he was an inclusion consultant for Hillel and was impressed with his ability to explain the diversity of the disability community. “He has both the passion, the lived experience and the depth of Jewish learning,” Moz said.

Koch’s talents also have been on display during recent RespectAbility Zoom events. During these sessions, members of the community have exchanged feedback on practical issues and have shared their feelings on their greatest personal challenges during the pandemic.

Mizrahi also has championed Koch’s efforts during the pandemic, noting that the fruits of his labors are being recognized in ways he may have been seeking had he gone to rabbinical school.

“You go to rabbinical school partially because you want to do a lot of Jewish learning and partially because you want a career where you are comforting or mentoring or shepherding Jewish neshamot — Jewish souls — and he is doing that in his job,” Mizrahi said. “We’ve had, since the crisis broke out, numerous Zoom sessions of just Jews with disabilities supporting other Jews with disabilities. So, in essence, it’s like he already has a congregation.”

As for Koch, he’s just busy doing his best for his “congregation” during these challenging times and trying to focus more on the positives than the negatives.

“There is some sweetness in all of the bitter,” he said, “and sometimes it is about finding it.”

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