Koert Wehberg just joined the City as the new Executive Director of the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities.
Today, we sat down with Koert to talk a little bit about what brought him to this role and what he hopes to accomplish in his new position.
First, I’d like to deal with the question that’s probably on everyone’s minds—or at least lurking in the background. I am a person with a disability. In fact, I have multiple disabilities, including being blind and having a mental illness. I am also a person of color.
I grew up in New York City as an only child of two parents who raised me to believe that I was entitled to be integrated in our community and to participate in life alongside my non-disabled peers. As early as high school, I knew I wanted to be an attorney and represent marginalized communities, and eventually, I enrolled in Syracuse University’s College of Law to participate in their Disability Law and Policy Program.
After that, I received a prestigious Equal Justice Works fellowship with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and then came to Philadelphia and worked at Disability Rights Pennsylvania—where I’ve worked for the past eight years.
Wow. You really jumped right from law school into using your legal skills as an advocate. So, what do you do for fun?
I enjoy reading, particularly Stephen King novels. In addition, I am a veracious news junky and I read the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times every day. I am also a passionate heavy metal fan, and I’ve been going to shows since I was a teenager. My cane certainly comes in handy when I end up in the mosh pit!
When it comes to sports, I have grown to love the Phillies and Eagles, but I must admit that I grew up attending Yankees games. A Phillies-Yankees World Series would certainly make my life difficult!
How did you end up in Philly?
My beautiful wife Christine. We were matched up at a wedding on May 21, 2010 and the following weekend I was taking a bus to Philly for a visit. Marrying her will always be the thing I am most proud of. We live in Mount Airy with Frances, our beautiful and snuggly cat.
What brought you to this role?
While my last 11 years of practicing disability rights law were rewarding, I wanted to find a position where I could make systemic change that was proactive, policy oriented, and—most importantly—community driven. This position will allow me to work collaboratively with the community and the Mayor’s Office to achieve a city that is truly accessible, no matter the person’s disability.
What excites you most about this new opportunity?
I am excited that I can develop programs and policies that will have a citywide impact. It is humbling to consider that I have been given this opportunity and I will always remember that I can only make a positive impact by listening and respecting the needs of Philadelphia’s disability community.
What do you plan on focusing on in your new role?
Employment and housing are two issues that I plan on heavily focusing on during my first year. Twenty-two percent of Philadelphians with disabilities live in poverty, and many cannot obtain housing that is both affordable and accessible. While these are two huge, intractable issues, I am confident that we can begin tackling these inequities and see some progress within the next year.
Do you have any longer-term goals for the Office?
My goal is to see the office have a larger footprint, both within city government as well as in the community. When issues arise that affect Philadelphians with disabilities, I want people to think of us as a resource that is ready, willing, and able to come up with innovative yet practical solutions.
How do you think your experience will help you in your new role?
As a person with multiple disabilities who has been fighting for disability rights my entire life, I understand that making Philadelphia more inclusive will not happen overnight. My past legal and life experience has prepared me to be patient but also realize that progress can be made and measured in short-term successes. While I cannot get everyone with a disability a job within my first month, for example, I can certainly begin implementing programs that lay the groundwork for sustained employment and other improvements that will benefit Philadelphians with disabilities.
What experiences, personal or professional, led you to focus your work specifically on people with disabilities?
When I was growing up, there were always people telling me what I couldn’t do or wouldn’t be able to do. When I would tell a teacher or counselor about my dreams of being a lawyer, some of them would tell me, in a condescending voice, how great that was or that they didn’t think I could do that. That made me angry and sparked my passion to ensure that others facing discrimination and other barriers would have their rights respected. Everyone has a right to pursue their dreams no matter what their disability is, or life circumstances are.
As the Executive Director for the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities, how do you view your role in the administration and in the community?
I see my role in the administration as the expert on disability policy. I want every city employee to feel comfortable in asking for my expertise on disability issues, large and small. I promise that if I can’t answer the question, I will collaborate with others to find the answer and respond to the person as soon as possible.
My role in the community is to advocate for systemic change to make Philadelphia a place where people with disabilities want to live, work and thrive. This means listening to residents to learn what systemic issues we need to prioritize and the obstacles impeding our path to progress. I am hear to listen, learn and do my very best to be responsive to what the community wants and to work within city government to achieve concrete outcomes for Philadelphians with disabilities.
The Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities is housed within the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. How do you see yourself working with the other Offices and Commissions that are part of ODI?
There is no way I can do this job by myself. If I thought that, I shouldn’t have been hired. With that in mind, I plan on collaborating with each staff member within Diversity and Inclusion to advocate on behalf of the disability community. I think we need an intersectional approach since disability issues impact all marginalized communities, including LGBT+, people of color, women, and low-income individuals just to name a few. This work is too important for us to be working in silos.
Is a hotdog a sandwich?
Of course not! I do love a hot dog though, especially with mustard.
What are your three favorite places in Philly?
- Walking on Forbidden Drive in the Wissahickon.
- Going to concerts at the TLA or anywhere else there is a metal show.
- My backyard in Mount Airy, the most peaceful place in the city, at least to me.