“In recent times, "sabbatical" has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something.”
I came to Womble Carlyle ten years ago in 2003. In the summer of 2013, I took a three month sabbatical to work at the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS). Womble is one of those future-looking law firms that encourage its partners to take a sabbatical. The only conditions they place on the sabbatical is that it cannot be for pay, it cannot be with a firm client or adverse to a firm client.
To refresh and clear my head I wanted a new challenge, something totally outside my comfort zone. I needed something that would allow me to still practice law, and maybe develop some new skills. I love practicing law, and have loved it from the first day of law school. It is intellectually challenging and allows me to feel like I can make a difference. After 38 years on the same trajectory, however, a three month sabbatical was quite the welcome gift.
I very much wanted to do something that could make a positive difference. I am very fortunate that NDSS gave me a chance to do just that. I was not part of the Down syndrome community. I have no relatives with Down syndrome, and none of my friends had children with Down syndrome. In fact, I had no connections with the disability community. But, I certainly do now. During my sabbatical at NDSS, I had the opportunity to work both with individuals with Down syndrome, and to work on behalf of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
The Down syndrome community story is a fascinating and ever evolving story. It was not that long ago that a child with Down syndrome was regularly institutionalized and had a very short lifespan. Today, for many born with Down syndrome life is radically different thanks to: early intervention; the tireless efforts of NDSS and other organizations like it; parents that would not take no for an answer; and improved medical care and research. Unlike 30 years ago, many individuals with Down syndrome have long productive lives.
The mission of NDSS is to be the national advocate for the value, acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. For the past three months, I have been part of that mission.
In January 2013, a young man with Down syndrome was killed by off duty sheriff deputies when they removed him from a movie theater because he had not purchased a ticket. During my sabbatical, NDSS, and others, worked tirelessly to have the Governor of Maryland (i) open an independent investigation into this unfortunate homicide to determine what happened; and (ii) to revise the training of how first responders interact with individual with intellectual disabilities. In September 2013, Governor O’Malley issued an executive order which established a commission to examine the training of first responders and to develop better training for first responders.
I was very fortunate to be able to accompany advocates from the Down syndrome community as they met with US Representatives and US Senators to gain support for the ABLE Act (H.R. 647 and S. 313). The ABLE Act would allow families to set funds aside in a tax-advantaged savings account that allows the funds to be withdrawn to cover costs of health care, employment support, housing, transportation, the purchase of technology and lifelong education. The funds will supplement but not replace benefits provided through Medicaid, Social Security and private insurance, allowing families with sons or daughters with significant disabilities a means to provide for extra costs associated with every day activities and community participation. The income earned on amounts contributed to an ABLE Account would be tax exempt and not counted as part of any asset limits for eligibility to federal programs. More than 50% of the Representatives and a significant number of Senators have signed on as sponsors of the ABLE Act. Hopefully, it will be passed this session of Congress.
I had the opportunity to learn about the issues relating to a person with intellectual disabilities’ rights like how to control their own affairs, be treated like anyone else when seeking a donor organ, have access to a free and appropriate public education, and to participate in mixed martial arts.
I am glad to be back, but very appreciative of the foresight of Womble in offering a sabbatical program, my clients for bearing with my absence, and NDSS for giving me the opportunity to make a difference.
Mark Palchick, JD