Aaron Kaufman has turned a disability into a successful career advocating on behalf of the intellectually and physically handicapped in Maryland. The 28-year-old Chevy Chase resident is happy to talk about having cerebral palsy and what Maryland and the nation can do to become a more inclusive society in which the disabled are full participants.
As a public policy specialist for two years with advocacy organization The Arc Maryland, Kaufman made sure that lawmakers in Annapolis took into account the needs of the disabled. Since August he has continued his work with The Arc Maryland as a consultant. His political advocacy on behalf of the disabled also includes serving as vice chairman of Maryland’s Developmental Disabilities Council.
In addition to earning a BA in American Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2011, Kaufman was graduated magna cum laude in 2009 from Montgomery College, Montgomery Scholars Honors Program, with an Associate in Arts degree. Most recently, he was graduated from the Leadership Montgomery Emerging Leaders Class of 2015.
The Temple Micah member is active in the Jewish community, serving on the board of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the inclusion committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Kaufman talked with us about living with cerebral palsy, catching the politics bug at an early age and the biggest misconception people have about the disabled.
Tell us about your advocacy work.
My parents have always taught me to make lemonade out of lemons. Of course no one likes having cerebral palsy, but rather than feeling sorry myself I chose to channel that into positive energy and use my contacts and advocacy skills to advocate on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
What issues are you working on right now?
There is a fair amount of support for people with disabilities, an OK amount of support for parents of people with disabilities but very little for siblings of people with disabilities. The Arc is partnering with the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council for a day devoted to siblings of people with developmental disabilities. I also think a major challenge is unemployment of people with development disabilities. According to The Arc, in the United States, nearly 88 percent of people with developmental disabilities like me are unemployed.
How did you get interested in politics?
It’s a funny story. We have a friend of the family, Sam Statland, and in 1994 he ran for the Maryland House of Delegates. I went with my dad to hand out leaflets when I was 7 or 8 and I was hooked. And since then I’ve worked on the Van Hollen for Congress campaign, the Cardin for Senate campaign, both Obama campaigns and the Kerry for Senate campaign.
Tell us about your disability.
I have what’s called cerebral palsy and like autism it’s a spectrum disorder, so I have difficulty with fine motor tasks such as buttoning shirts, cutting food, things of that nature. And I also use a walker to get around. In school I was in what is called the learning disabled program that is meant for students who are very intelligent and have some significant strengths but also some significant deficits. So it also impacted my life educationally. But that’s what is unique about the Montgomery County public schools is they celebrated my strengths so I could do special education math and science due to my brain injury, because that’s the part of my brain that’s affected, but I could also do honors English and history.
What is the biggest misconception people have about the disabled?
The fact that people automatically associate developmental disability with an intellectual disability — what we used to call, although it’s now considered a very bad term, mental retardation. Quite often people are shocked when I tell them that I graduated from the University of Maryland or that I have a job, or I had one.