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Expanding career horizons for people with disabilities
USC Gould School of Law

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

USC Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics supports scholars with mental health challenges by partnering with national mentorship program.

Editor's note: The program is on hold for the fall 2020 semester due to uncertainties related to COVID-19, with hopes of resuming in spring 2021.

By Leslie Ridgeway

The USC Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics has entered into a partnership supporting higher education for students with psychiatric and psychosocial disabilities, as part of Pearson Education’s Corporate Disability Mentorship Program.

The mentorship program was launched in 2016 by Pearson, the international education publishing and assessment company, initially in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind. It was expanded in 2018 to students with mental health challenges after discussions with Pearson officials and Elyn Saks, Saks Institute founder and faculty director, and Christopher Schnieders, director, who both sit on Pearson’s Disability Mentorship Advisory Council, which comprises leaders in disability, education and diversity communities. 

The mentorship program seemed a logical extension of the Saks Institute’s annual Student Scholars program, which supports JD and interdisciplinary PhD candidates as they establish careers in law and mental health. The goal is to offer the mentorship program to USC students seeking professions both in and outside of law, expanding career opportunities for people with mental health disabilities with plenty of potential but lacking the resources and support to succeed.

Saks Institute founder and faculty director Elyn Saks hopes the partnership supporting higher education for students with psychiatric and psychosocial disabilities grows to other businesses.

“The idea of this program catching on and growing to other businesses is our dream,” Saks says.

The third cohort of the mentorship program at USC begins in fall 2020, incorporating lessons learned from the first two cohorts that took place in spring and fall 2019, lasting one semester each. Both Saks and Schnieders mentored students in the two pilot semesters and identified opportunities for improvement.

“We feel very positive learning from our past two cohorts,” Schnieders says. “We plan to begin a two-semester program. It takes time for the students and mentors to connect, for the relationships to form.”

The mentorship program at Pearson began as a three-month virtual mentoring project matching disabled students and recent graduates with Pearson employees. The program is intended to meet an unaddressed need for disabled students within the legal profession, said Bjarne P. Tellmann, general counsel and chief legal officer at Pearson, who helped establish the Pearson program.

 “Two-thirds of disabled college students never graduate*,” he says. “Those who do face unemployment rates of 70 percent or more, and those that get work are often in low-skill jobs way below what they’re qualified to do.**

“The thing we thought we could do to help was to match legal professionals with 30-50 students who are disabled in some form. It appears that, in many cases, disabled students’ role models are from the activist space, which is great, but we wanted to pair them with professionals outside of that space as well so that they become exposed to as broad a range of career options as possible.”

The program matches students with mentors and “super mentors,” disabled people who have established successful careers, like Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School and who works as a disability rights attorney. The mentors inspire students and help them connect with the resources they need to succeed in their academic programs, such as accessibility to disability-appropriate educational materials. Elizabeth Goueti, counsel for higher education at Pearson Canada, joined Saks and Schnieders in mentoring a USC student last year and saw firsthand the difference that access to resources made.

 The student “would raise points to us about things she was struggling with, like resolving a conflict at work, or navigating an uncomfortable situation,” Goueti says. “She needed someone to bounce ideas off of. Often in the mental health community people want help but don’t know who to ask or what questions to ask. Through Elyn and Chris students can leverage [their expertise] and programs to assist in getting resources.”

Goueti noted that the Saks Institute, with its established relationships within the disability community, is in a unique leadership position to influence the direction of the program.

“The Saks Institute can speak to individuals in the community who have a disability or are trying to overcome one,” she said. “They can bring voices within the disability community to the corporate table.”


*“The Low Number of Students With Disabilities Graduating From College Is A Crisis,” Huffington Post, 2017

**Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics – 2019, Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 2020


 AALS honors Elyn Saks with Distinguished Service Award

Prof. Elyn Saks, faculty director and founder, Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, was recently feted by the Association of American Law Schools, which established the Elyn R. Saks Distinguished Service Award in her honor at its annual meeting Jan. 2-5 in Washington, D.C.

“I am so honored and delighted to have received the AALS award, and even more that the section will honor every year a law professor in the mental health law space,” says Saks. “It’s something very gratifying to me. I couldn’t be prouder.”

The award is one of more than 20 section awards given out each year by several of AALS’ 104 sections, which include law faculty in different academic disciplines and interest areas. Saks was honored for her outstanding contributions to the study and understanding of mental disability.

Saks applauded AALS for its appreciation of legal scholars and their work in the mental health sphere.

“Recognizing people for their good work in this arena is bound to improve things in the world of people with mental health challenges and their families and friends,” she says. “I hope my own work has, in some small way, done this, and I look forward to the contributions that others in this section will make in the years to come.”

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