Alvaro Gutierrez Interviews Rodger Derose, president and CEO of the Kessler foundation.

All Podcasts »
Alvaro Gutierrez

Today, our guest is Rodger Derose he is the president and CEO of the Kessler foundation.


Alvaro Guttierrez: Hello and welcome to project access for all today we have with us Rodger Derose he is the president and CEO of the Kessler foundation. Thank you so much Rodger for being with us today.

Rodger Derose: Well thank you, thank you for having me, me, as well as representing Kessler foundation Alvaro.

Alvaro Guttierrez: My pleasure and the first question that comes to mind is what can you tell us about the history of the Kessler foundation?

Rodger Derose: Well, you know, Kessler foundation started as a result of Kessler institute for rehabilitation which is a world-renowned hospital that focuses on neuromuscular conditions and Kessler foundation started as a fundraising organization by grassroots, auxiliary movements and it started about 28 years ago and it has continued to expand and during that 28 year history it also then became the owner of the assets of the hospital and we did a hospital conversion in 2004 and through that conversion in terms of selling the hospital we, were fortunate to build a, a, a very large endowment which funds our programs today, the mission of the organization which is really to improve the lives of people with disabilities caused by caused by stroke and multiple sclerosis and injuries to the brain and spinal cord so we, we have a two part mission, one part is research which is really focused on improving the functionality of the conditions I just mentioned and helping people regain to the best of their ability independence so they could move back into their community, family, and society and in the second part of our mission is to address the very high and stubborn and high unemployment rate that people with
disabilities face every day of their life and we focus on creating innovative employment programs that demonstrate to american businesses whether they are large or small that people with disabilities can add shareholder value to any organization so we’re very proud of our mission and, and we relive it everyday here with the 110 employees we have in our foundation.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Rodger let me go for a follow up on that employment opportunities and employment practices, can you elaborate a little bit on that like what kinds of programs are you doing with businesses or what kind of best practices do you recommend to businesses?

Rodger Derose: Well it’s a very important question you just asked and because of the 55 million Americans that we have, that are considered in the class of disability, between the ages of 18 and 65, there’s about 30 million individuals that are, that would be considered in the workforce population, and of that 30 million, only 25 to 30 percent of them are working. So that means that the balance, are, really living off of their public benefits, and if you live off of public benefits, I think anybody listening to this program knows that, you know, you are not going to create a great asset base or financial base to live through out the remaining parts, the remaining portion of your life, and so what we wanna do is demonstrate that in addition to public benefits or separate from public benefits that people with disabilities can lead a very independent life, they can be great contributors to any workforce, they can work side by side with able-bodied individuals or the same pay, to be held accountable for the same metrics and same performance measurements and be real contributors to any organization, and so we’ve been funding a demonstration projects or test market projects of what we believe in, for example in large companies like Lowe’s Home improvement Centers, like Officemax, Office
Depot, like Pepsi, where we are helping to fund other non-profit organizations and bring specific consulting skills to those corporations that are interested in hiring people with disabilities, training their workforces so that they know what to expect in working with people with disabilities and how to on-board, bring people with disabilities into those work environments so that they can establish and be successful in that organization. And because of that we have seen great success stories occur in the types of organizations that I’ve just mentioned but I doesn’t end there. We’ve done also very innovative project in entrepreneurism programs, teaching individuals with disabilities have great ideas for their own businesses, how to become successful in starting a business and sustaining a business, we’ve created small social enterprise businesses where we have funded other non-profits that needed capital injection funds to purchase equipments, build the right staff, and build the right processes and systems. So, we’ve covered a wide range of innovation that have demonstrated we believe over the last ten years and the last 30 million dollars that we’ve invested in these programs that again, we can help in terms of demonstrating that people with disabilities can bring positive change and make those organization stronger, more successful in terms of what they are trying to achieve in the marketplace.

Alvaro Guttierrez: That is wonderful for our listeners to learn about, we’ll talk about the website in depth a little bit more later, but speaking about the website I have to applaud Rodger, the effort of your foundation, in making it accessible for everybody. For our listeners, I am legally blind I use a screen reader for PCs called ZoomText which is great but it depends on the accessibility of the website and your website is totally accessible for me and I wanted to talk about why it is important to make a website accessible for all.

Rodger Derose: Well it’s a very good question as well and when we redesigned our website about five years ago we felt that if we are in the disability community as a leading organization that’s trying to change the lives of people with disabilities, we had to make it accessible for everyone and so we felt that very important that anybody coming to our website had access to the information and so, as we look to the future we’re just about ready to re-launch a, an updated version of our website in the next few months here, I believe it is the middle of may, we’ll, we’ll continue to not only make it accessible but also to make it easily accessible in terms of all of the information that we have on there that anybody that comes to our site has full access to the data, the information, the social feeds that we have, videos that we have that, that we are trying to share some of the success stories by doing storytelling, our employment programs, our research programs, it’s a very very important point that you raise and I hope that anybody listening to this will understand if their website is not accessible that they’re missing a very very important market segment because with 55 million americans that have disabilities and many individuals are in the workforce that have those disabilities, they, they should be looking at making their websites accessible.

Alvaro Guttierrez: I totally agree with you Rodger and I know our listeners do too, and that is super important, web accessibility and also mobile phones, tablets, and everywhere else. Now talking about projects that you are funding at this time, can you give us the specifics of projects that you are funding?

Rodger Derose: Well we fund two parts of, to our organization to our organization as I
mentioned, one part is that that we fund out of the investment income that comes from our endowment, is our research, and so, about 75 employees from the 110 employees that we have are dedicated to research in spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, and multiple sclerosis. And, we fund about 50% of their research, we ask our researchers, that are world leaders, world scientists, that can compete on the world stage for the best research in the world to compete at the federal, state level and other private foundations where they can actually pick their sides and compete against other world leaders that are doing similar science and also win grants, federal grants, state grants and private grants, and so about 50% of their funding comes from our endowment, the other 50% comes from our scientists being able to win grants from the national institutes of health, the department of defense, the veterans administration, private foundations, the national multiple sclerosis foundation, so our scientists have been very very successful in terms of demonstrating their leadership, their thought leadership in the areas we are focused on in terms of improving new interventions that are going to help people with those conditions think, learn, remember, regain their mobility, or have improvements to the functional issues, the secondary complications that they have to live with every day, the other part of our mission in terms of employment grants, we are funding employment initiatives as well as community integration initiatives for people with disabilities. Our employment initiatives that we fund, for example, some of the large corporate initiatives that I mentioned to you about Pepsi and Lowe’s and Officemax, Office Depot, are at the corporate level but we’ve also fund, and we fund those corporations through other non-profits that act as the deliverer of the service that is being provided to help those for-profit organization likes Lowe’s and, Officemax, and Office Depot and Pepsi, hire people with disabilities and on-board those people with disabilities in terms of finding the right people, helping to set up the right training
programs and then helping to track and integrate them with able-bodied individuals in those work forces, but we’ve also funded community integration programs in sports, in the arts, because we believe those are in music and abstract art, and we believe those have been important because again it is another step forward in helping people with disabilities take a step in terms of feeling a part of society and from there building confidence so that they can build skillsets and perhaps enter into areas that they have a passion about in terms of potentially creating employment opportunities for themselves.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Now two questions in one Rodger. Are you ready for that?

Rodger Derose: (Laughter) I’ll try.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Okay, so biggest improvement for people with disabilities until today and biggest obstacle remaining.

Rodger Derose: That’s a tough question you know, but let me, let me start by me saying this Alvaro, I believe that the signing of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990 lead by president Bush number one and the congressional support that he go that was bi-partisan was a major step forwards in terms of demonstrating to the world and to americans with disabilities that we could take steps forward and when you look at the improvements to the physical infrastructure that has taken place in those 25 years as we’ve now come up to celebrating on July 26 the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA act and you look at the integration of how we’ve integrated individuals with disabilities into our education system and have made and have
reached minimal, shrunk the gap in terms of able bodied individuals and people with disabilities in terms of their educational progress and you, you look at health care areas, even though we still have to make improvements in health, those are real advances, public transportation advances that have taken place we, we’ve made real advances and we’re a model for the world to look at in terms of what we’ve done here in the United States through the ADA act and other initiatives that have been improvements during those 25 years. I, I think the one area however where we still have a huge gap in employment and that is one of the reasons why we’ve invested over 30 million dollars in programs that help integrate people with disabilities back into the community and employment we still as I mentioned earlier only have about 25 to 30 percent people with disabilities that of the working age population, who are actually working, the others are relying on public benefits to support themselves and we really believe that as baby boomers start to retire and employers start to see that and start to see a great shortage of talent in the workforce, then people with disabilities can add value to any organization, and you don’t do this from a social justice point of view, you don’t do this because you feel that this is the nice thing to do, you do it because you hire people with disabilities because it can add value to shareholders, it can help and organization create better products, better services for the general marketplace that they serve. It can help those companies increase their market share and their, improve not only their top line revenue but their bottom line, their bottom line profitability in terms of efficiencies and increased profits because it increased revenues and it demonstrates that we can work, as I mentioned we can have people with disabilities and able-bodied individuals working side by side it makes our organizations, it makes organizations, people in organizations, it makes them better managers, it makes them better parents, because it can bring the skillsets home, it makes them better citizens of the world, it makes them better
individuals all overall, and so, I, I think we’re going to see an increase in the hiring of people with disabilities in this next five to ten years that will put us on the right track. We put out an, a report, every jobs friday called NTDE which stands for National Transit Disability Employment and over the last 4 months we’ve seen a small increase in tenths of percentage points, but it’s nonetheless, it’s an increase in the hiring of people with disabilities into organizations and that’s a good sign and we hope that that will continue.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Rodger you are giving a great, positive perspective, for people with disabilities about employment, and let’s go a little more into that cause many of our listeners are looking for a job, they have their resumes ready to go, but they are not so excited to try and go into the workplace to ask for a job they think oh my God, are they going to hire me, are they going to believe in me, should I say that I have a disability, shouldn’t I say it, what would you say to them Rodger?

Rodger Derose: Well, you know, it’s a it’s a complicated question, right, I realize that, but I think you know, at the, if we can start, young people that have disabilities, if we can help them in the transition, build their skillsets at a very early age, build their confidence and motivation at a very early age, convince their parents that their, their, their child is capable of entering the workforce because often times parents are sometimes individuals that hold their children back by saying you know, you, you don’t wanna go into the workforce and earn too much money because you will lose your public benefits, if we can get through that transitional stage and build confidence in young people, I think that it is the same way we have seen great improvements over the last 25 years over the signing of the ADA act, I think over time, it may
take a generation, but over time we will see great improvements in terms of individuals that have been born or have grown, have encountered a disability at a young age, build confidence and make them transition. However, I would also say that for anyone that has a disability that it’s, it’s very important to be bold and be brave and find ways to demonstrate to any potential employer, even if you have to volunteer for a period of time to get your foot in the door, even if it’s for a few hours a week, that could potentially lead to an opportunity in that organization so that while you’re volunteering, even if it is only a few hours a week you are building a skillset that you can then take with you to that company that you’re in or that organization that you’re in that will potentially see the great performance that you’re providing and the great value you’re providing so that they will then consider hiring you as an opening comes up or that you could take those skillsets with you to other organizations, it almost becomes almost a, it’s very entrepreneurial I understand but it, it’s almost like a mentorship program it’s almost like a program where you’re building your skillsets even if you have to find a way to volunteer your time and you’re not getting paid for it that, you, you built your skills, you become part of that organization, you’re working side by side with other individuals where they can actually see a demonstrated ability that you’re bringing and so it becomes a celebration of the ability of, of, of the individual and what that person can bring to the organization, that’s what I would do. I, I’ve, those types of internships, whether they’re paid or unpaid bring great skillsets that you can put into your bag of experience and take with you anywhere and that’s for, I recommend that for an able-bodied individual or an individual that has a disability, it doesn’t matter, it’s, it’s a, those are building skills that are gonna help you through life, that’s what I would recommend.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Rodger, everybody who’s listening to the interview right now says “He is the
president and CEO of the Kessler foundation and we feel the excitement, and the passion, and the commitment that you have for the foundation and for your work, can you tell our listeners what is the most rewarding part of what you do?

Rodger Derose: Yeah for, you know for me, having grown up in the for-profit world and industry, for about 30 years, then converting over to the nonprofit world, as I entered the final years of my, my work career, it really has been very rewarding in general, particularly from the perspective that when you come home at night to recognize that, the work you have done, the hours that you’ve put in, the investment of time that you’re putting in, is really making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, that you are really doing something even if it’s microsteps, that you are really doing something that is helping to change the lives, improving the lives of people with disabilities, whether that is on the research side where we’re coming up with new interventions that can be used to help stroke patients or spinal cord injury patients brain injured patients, multiple sclerosis patients, help them address issues of mobility or help them address issues of fatigue or help them address issues of thinking and learning and remembering, if we can help make positive change in, from a research perspective leading to clinical care improvements, that’s a great benefit that I think we all step back and say I feel good about the work I’ve been doing, I feel the same, strong passion about the employment initiatives and the community integration initiatives that we’re doing for people with disabilities because it helps them build confidence I think and reenter the community after they’ve gone through the medical aspects they’ve had to deal with and sometimes those medical aspects are for life, but at the same time we’ve helped transition them back to the community, to the family, to society, to the workplace, and I think all of our employees feel that way, the 110
employees that we have here who feel a very strong passion about our mission, and they’ve said that by helping our organization be recognized as one of the hundred best organizations to work for in New Jersey for the past four years, and for the past three years, consecutive years, helped us be recognized as one of the 50 best nonprofits to work for, and when you consider there is a million and a half nonprofits in the United States and our employees are rating us that highly, I think it always goes back to mission, it doesn't come down to just the paycheck and benefits and vacation time, it really comes down to having a connection back to the mission of the organization and I feel like our employees feel that strong connection.

Alvaro Guttierrez: If I say, if I could say something to that or add something to that would be for our listeners it’s always important as Rodger is telling us today to love what you do and do what you love and that’s what is proving us without a doubt in this interview. Rodger how can people donate to your foundation?

Rodger Derose: Well, I mean we, we, we would love ot have any of your listeners that are listening to this interview feel free to go to our website which is that’s and there a donate page, a donate button right on the page, and they can feel free to donate a dollar or, or five dollars or 1000 dollars whatever, they, they feel a passion to the mission that we have to our organization, we, we would welcome that, it’s very very kind that you would offer that oppurtunity Alvaro.

Alvaro Guttierrez: My pleasure and Rodger, the microphone is yours to tell our listeners your final thoughts on the important work that you are doing in the foundation and what you want
our listeners to walk away from this.

Rodger Derose: Well thank you and and Alvaro thank you for hosting this this interview and giving us this opportunity and I would say to your listeners that you know I don’t want to, I don’t want this to sound self-promotional in terms of what our organization is doing because there are so many organizations, so many great organizations in the disability community that are trying to advance all of the initiatives that we are trying to do as well, we can’t do it on our own, there are many organizations, thousands of them across the United States that are doing this and, and others around the world that are doing this as well but I think, I think it’s, it’s probably appropriate to say to your listeners that as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act that we should all be proud of what has been accomplished during that time, there’s still much to be done. This was a great civil right movement, it was a great social justice movement, but it’s in our hands to take the initiative, to be brave, to be bold, to be forthright in terms of what we feel the, the 55 million americans that have disabilities can offer to society, to our families, to our communities, to the workforce, and that we should continue to try to make improvements, continually improve upon what’s already been achieved by historians in the last 25 years and that we should all feel good about that, but there’s always positive change that can, can continue, and that’s what we should all be working towards. And so I ask all of your listeners to celebrate with all of us as we celebrate the 25th anniversary on July 26, but look for ways that we can continually improve for this large majority, minority group of 55 million americans that have a disability but want to demonstrate the important abilities that they bring to the world marketplace.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Finally Rodger, tell us again the website so people can go.

Rodger Derose: Our website is, that’s and if they google that our website will pop right up.

Alvaro Guttierrez: Well Rodger, I really appreciate your time and I know Elaine and everybody at the Kessler foundation also deserves credit helping us make this happen, we know how busty you are as the president and CEO of such a big and important foundation so thank you for your time and your passion that you bring to the table.

Rodger Derose: It’s my pleasure Alvaro, thank you very much for focusing on the entire disability community and, impart the work we are doing, we feel very proud of, the, the work we and the opportunities that we have to share with your listeners. Thank you again.

Alvaro Guttierrez: For our listeners remember that we are on social media, you just go to facebook, look for project access for all and you can lke us there, you can follow us on twitter by going to twitter @projectaccessforall, you can visit our website at and if you want to be on this show you can email us at so from Alvaro, from ABS and project access for all thank you so much for listening to this very important and powerful interview, and have a wonderful day.