PUBLISHED:December 08, 2009

Richard Salem '72

Richard Salem firmly believes that “good things happen when people have jobs.” That is, in fact, the slogan of his nonprofit organization, Enable America, through which he’s trying to undo this sobering statistic: Out of 54 million Americans with disabilities who are able to work, 70 percent are unemployed.

Salem attributes the alarming unemployment rate to a combination of factors, including “attitudinal barriers” held both by people with disabilities and the business community and laws that govern Social Security disability benefits — passed with good intentions — that deter people from working.

“One day, you have health care, a roof over your head and an income. The next, if you have a job, it’s all taken away, because your benefits end if you make over $800 or so a month,” says Salem, the founding partner of the Tampa based Salem Law Group, whose practice focuses on business and governmental affairs. He was lobbying Congress to change those laws when a conversation with a senator and the wife of a congressional leader on the importance of listening to constituents convinced him to broaden his approach.

Shortly after that conversation, in 2002, Salem founded Enable America, which he leads as chairman and CEO.

“We realized we needed, in essence, a community-building, grassroots organization to coalesce people with disabilities, community-based organizations, caregivers, and families to work together to accomplish their common goals, which can be blurred by focusing on the welfare of individuals — the very real need to keep food on the table and just survive,” he says.

Encouraging different constituent groups to network to help achieve their various objectives, Salem and Enable America have issued a direct challenge to people with disabilities and their advocates. “Do not allow the ‘haves’ to be in charge of what the ‘have-nots’ can do. Be a participant — not a spectator,” he says.

That’s how Salem has approached his own life and career since losing his sight as a teenager after being hit with a baseball. As Duke Law’s first blind graduate, he recalls the support of former associate dean Frank “Tom” Read ’63, the faculty, and his classmates as he utilized books on tape — reel-to-reel — and had seven undergraduate readers to assist him in law school. He even learned to listen to two readers speaking at the same time.

“The situation required that we resort to as much innovative effort and technology utilization as possible. Another good lesson was learning to work with other people carefully and to recognize that as part of life and business,” says Salem. He praises mentors Walter Dellinger and William Van Alstyne, the four law deans with whom he’s worked, and then-Duke president Terry Sanford, for whom he served as speechwriter in his third year of law school.

Enable America not only teaches people with disabilities about available resources, it also provides services that can immediately improve lives. The organization’s on-the-job employment mentoring program is one example. People with disabilities are matched with businesses that are committed to improving diversity and expanding the talent of their workforce. In conjunction with that effort, November was declared “Disabled Veteran Employment Mentoring Month,” with Enable America facilitating mentoring programs aimed specifically at helping veterans find jobs.

“Great things can happen in just one day on the job,” says Salem. “That one day opens the eyes of both the person with a disability and the employer, and also helps caregivers realize that there is life beyond disability in a world that is ever-changing with technology and opportunity. Even in this recession, there’s high demand for a skilled, dedicated, committed work force, and often, once everybody’s over the fear factor, businesses understand that this is not a charitable thing they’re doing.”

While employment mentoring can begin with a single day at work, employers have the option to expand the opportunity into longer internships that can last a number of weeks, or make an immediate hire. Enable America’s November mentoring program in San Antonio is a perfect example of that. On a Thursday, a disabled veteran was a mentee at a Clark/Hunt construction site. By the following Monday, he was hired and on the job as a paid employee.

Enable America has expanded from its base in Tampa to include key markets in Raleigh, Texas, New York, and Washington, D.C. “All the areas into which we’re expanding have common characteristics — a cultural willingness to receive and work with new people and, in turn, new ideas,” says Salem, a North Carolina native.

An honorary life member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors, Salem also is actively involved in organizations such as the National Eye Institute and the National Organization on Disability. At 62, he regards his own life as so rich and challenging that he is eager to facilitate the same opportunities for career and personal success for others with disabilities.

“The systemic problems, attitudinal barriers, and the need for significant change create a landscape that is a long and difficult road to travel,” he says. “But we’ll keep going because we don’t want to live as observers of what other people doing — we want into the American dream.”