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Matt Saleh smiles thoughtfully while looking directly at the camera and sitting on a couch in front of a window.

Matt Saleh Asks Questions, Spurs Impact

Matt is fascinated by the law and its relationship to disability and criminal justice. He is an energetic teacher and researcher in Cornell University’s ILR School, and he has taken on roles involving equity in employment. The text in this conversation has been edited and condensed.

You are a senior research associate at the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability and co-director of the Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative. Is there a short way to describe what you do?

I consider myself a political scientist. My expertise is on how federal, and state regulatory frameworks interact with one another. A lot of my research falls under policy analysis, but I write a lot of law review articles as well. I also teach Cornell classes in the ILR Disability Studies Sequence and one in the government department.

I am interested in the intersection of disability, criminal justice involvement, and access to work. I think about disability with a sociological, structural approach. Yes, people have impairments of all sorts, but society’s structure affects how disabling an impairment is. Interactions with the criminal justice system are just one example of a potentially disabling experience.

People with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in arrest and incarceration. This overrepresentation exists despite almost no evidence that people with disabilities commit more serious crimes than people without disabilities. This suggests that structural factors – such as inequality and policing – are in play.

Do you have a favorite class to teach?

My favorite class to teach is “Disability Law.” Before I became a teacher, I took this class in law school and it really interested me.

I’ve taught it eight or nine times now. I used to teach it with Thomas Golden [former executive director of the Yang-Tan Institute, who passed away in 2020]. It’s evolved from focusing primarily on the Americans with Disabilities Act to focusing on disability more broadly. For example, we discuss access to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing conditions provision. We also talk about the historical use of common law doctrine like the “insanity defense” and “competence” determinations in criminal law.

I push back on the perception that disability law is a new field. Areas like public entitlements and insurance, criminal law, torts and others have used normative definitions of disability for centuries, and even longer. The definition of disability is a big topic in this class as well. We talk about how different laws define that one word – disability – differently, and how that connects to the public policy objectives of these laws.

Do you do other work with Cornell students?

Definitely. Involving students in our work is a big part of what we do. I’ve created some community-engaged learning opportunities. For example, my colleague LaWanda Cook [senior extension associate at the Yang-Tan Institute] and I developed the Pro Se Speech and Debate program, where Cornell students provide peer mentoring and supplemental education for youth who are involved in a diversion program, to help those youth build skills around speech, debate and self-advocacy. At the end of the program, the youth receive a Cornell certificate in Speech and Debate.

What attracted you to your field?

When I was graduating from Union College in Schenectady, New York, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had the idea that law school could be my next step. One inspiration for this idea was my mom. She is a special education attorney. She went to law school when I was a kid.

I got into Syracuse University College of Law with a full scholarship. Syracuse had a really good disability-studies focus in their law school. They also had a GED program in Auburn Correctional Facility, which is a maximum-security prison near Syracuse. I was a GED instructor there for three years while in law school. That’s where my two interest areas developed: disability and criminal justice.

As I developed this dual interest, I was surprised at how deeply related legal constructions of disability are to the American carceral state. Disability law goes back to before America existed as a country, before we had modern medical and psychological constructs to adequately describe diverse types of disabilities. In many cases, the law invented ways of describing disability that still exist today.

The deeper I got into it, the more I found it fascinating. It gets into philosophical things around normativity. What makes a person disabled versus not disabled? What kind of ideologies and preconceptions do we all bring to the table when we talk about who has a disability, and why? How much do we consider environmental factors that are disabling to the individual rather than focusing on their impairments? I got curious and passionate about these topics.

It sounds like you and your mom have overlapping careers

Every year, my mom guest lectures about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in my “Disability Law” class. She loves doing it. In the reviews, the students always mention liking that lecture.

What do you do on your days off?

I like spending time with my son. His name is Virgil. My girlfriend’s grandfather was named Virgil. I think it’s a great name. He’s just over a year old. He’s a delight. He’s a jokester. He makes noises, and then, when you imitate the noise he made, he thinks it’s funny, so he’ll keep doing it. He’ll keep trying to get a reaction out of you.

How do you approach a workday?

Writing is my favorite part of my job, so I wake up early and write for a couple of hours. That’s my habit. By 10 a.m., I’m so burnt out in a writing way that I can’t write anymore. It’s a different part of my brain that I use for writing. Then I can teach. If my classes are at night, I can teach in the evening.

You recently had a paper published called “Law’s body.” What’s that about?

This Law’s body paper was suggested by some students for a symposium, and they worked with me on it. Involving students in publications is another way I get them involved in research. The topic was a little outside the box for me. We were looking at the different ways that the human body has been constructed and described within “Legal English.” In other words, how does the law use language to describe a thing like the human body, which is so complex and material?

This was relevant to disability studies, too, because we were interested not only in how judges construct the human body but also the idealized human body. These kinds of norms affect how we think of disability as well: disability is often framed, discursively through the words chosen by judges and legislators, in relation to ideal forms.

I learned about myself by working on it. It’s fascinating how judges have ideologies around what the human body is. One interesting finding we had was that judges say the living human body has so much value, that we can’t ascribe a monetary or other value to it. In other words, it is so valuable that it has no value.

These kinds of things create confusion around human bodies that happen to be in a socially reduced state, legally speaking. Coincidentally, within the law, two common ways that a person finds themselves in a socially reduced state, where their rights are abrogated, is through severe disability or through incarceration. We worked through all these different ways that the law creates rules that allow an idealized notion of a perfectly functioning human body to be reduced to a level where tough choices can be made.

Like, if you have a cognitive disability, and your brain function is affected to a certain level, is the invaluableness of your body reduced? How do courts reason through that? Similarly, individuals who are incarcerated exist in a state of suspended rights. All the high rhetoric about the value of the human body goes out the window. These things connect the areas of law that I’m interested in. It was cool to work with students on the topic too, because they brought unique lenses to the analysis.

That paper and others you’ve written talk about the concept of “civil death.” What is that?

Dating back to ancient times, there is a legal doctrine that a person who violates the social contract – for instance by committing a crime – may be relegated to a status of “civil death.” This doctrine still has meaning in the modern United States. Today, the doctrine is a kind of legal loophole, explaining how individuals who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated still have some fundamental constitutional rights, but they’re not a full participant in society, writ large, with the same civil rights that all other individuals have. The law uses this as a rationale to explain the kind of rightlessness that often follows a formerly incarcerated person around after their sentence has ended.

I also wrote a paper called Civil death and labor market alienation, and it’s based on a legal doctrine called “civil disability,” which is a term for how a person who has a criminal conviction also has limited access to things like voting and employment, public benefits and entitlements and so forth. I think it’s interesting that we use death and disability as metaphors for people who have violated the social contract. It creates all these weird questions that circle back to my disability studies background.

What is your favorite snack?

Those Bumblebee tuna packages that come with crackers. It goes back to being a kid. It was a snacky thing that was always in our cabinets. I still have nostalgia for it. I stock my pantry in Cortland with them.

In your work, the term “justice-impacted” comes up a lot. What does it mean?

For a term like just-impacted, there is a tendency among people who haven’t thought about it to say, “don’t you mean someone who has a criminal conviction?” Or there is a tendency to use dehumanizing language like “offender” or “convict,” words that define a person based on a thing that they did, even though many people look back regretfully on having done those things and no longer should be defined by them.

There are two terms: justice-impacted and justice-involved. “Justice-involved” means you are in the system. You are being adjudicated. You’re going to court. Maybe you are in county jail. You’re in prison. You’re on probation. You’re on parole. You haven’t completed your sentence.

“Justice-impacted” is a broader term. Having been previously involved in the justice system, even if you’re now free and you’ve completed your sentence, you have been impacted by the justice system. In some cases, you might not have been sentenced, you might have been arrested or gone to trial, but these things still have deep impacts. It’s not gone from your life. You take it with you forever.

And it’s beyond that. There are horrible inaccuracies in criminal records, so you could have never been arrested or convicted, but have a criminal record and be justice-impacted but not even know it. About one-in-three Americans are in some way justice-impacted.

If someone’s parent was justice-involved, does that make them justice-impacted?

Justice-impacted is a term like the word disability. How broad do you mean it to be? If you were a child and one of your parents was arrested and taken out of the home, certainly you are justice-impacted. Something like two-thirds of people who are incarcerated have a child or somebody at home. Part of the story of mass incarceration is the impact on families and communities.

In a recent policy brief called Updating New York State’s Employment Restrictions, one thing that the Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative tracked is how during the rise of mass incarceration from the 1970s until now, on a federal and a state level, we started regulating almost every job sector. It’s gotten harder and harder to get work when you have a felony conviction, and the rules have become less coherently connected to public policy. For example, in New York state, we have 500 laws that cover pretty much any occupation you could imagine.

How do you work on so much at once?

I have good colleagues who have their own work that they’re doing, but we have common interests, and it all supports what all of us are doing. I see their work, and I get excited, and I get ideas. Having good collaborators is important.

I try to involve students in law review articles. Every year I’ll write one or two law symposium articles about special issues. If a student in my Disability Law class volunteers to help, I will make them a co-author on the paper. I find that working with students who aren’t yet quite as ensconced in academic language and reasoning can sometimes open me up to more creative ideas. Some of the papers I’m most proud of are ones where students helped formulate the initial topic.

Did you once live in New York City?

I started working at Cornell when I moved to New York City, and I lived there for 12 years. This job was for the New York State Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) project, which was this massive research demonstration project funded by the Social Security Administration. They needed someone with a Ph.D. to do site visits around the city. I got to know the city really well. The deepest parts of Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx – everything. New York City has so many interesting people. And there’s so much opportunity to figure out who you are. It was a pretty awesome place to live. I might go back some day.

I moved upstate during the early months of the pandemic. I noticed when I stopped commuting in the city that I have so much more energy to do things in the morning.

Do you have any hobbies?

I’ve been in bands since I was a teenager. I usually played the electric bass. I’m not in a band right now. These days, I play more guitar, and I like to write songs with friends and with my partner. I do events where the focus is on making songwriting a fun, approachable communal experience. My gigs have become these little informational sessions for playing music in the community. I’m performing in a session called “Songwriting for All Ages” at the “Kids Arts Festival” in Schenectady in June.

Why is the intersection of school, employment and justice-involvement important to you?

The work is important to me because many young people are still in their formative years and are developing their career pathways when they experience justice involvement.

A project that I have my head in right now is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It focuses on improving access to the vocational rehabilitation system for youth who are involved with the justice or foster care system. [The project is called Improving VR Outcomes for Out-of-School Youth Involved in the Justice and/or Foster Care Systems.]

The government has released papers estimating that as high as 70% of juvenile justice–involved youth have some type of disability, like a learning disability, cognitive disability, intellectual disability or mental health condition. Many of these young people did not have the special education services they’re entitled to when they were in school. Many of them were, I think, wrongly referred to a justice-involved situation. Schools are the largest referrer to the juvenile-justice system for low- and mid-level offenses. There are statistics on this.

We’re creating all this disadvantage to the population that we then mobilize all these resources for – we have well-funded systems of vocational rehabilitation that are supposed to help young people build career pathways. The laws say we should prioritize those services for youth with barriers to employment, like justice involvement, foster care involvement. But for some reason, nationally, and in New York, these young people access the systems at lower rates.

What is your favorite productivity tip?

Work on things that you are interested in first. For me, that means I get up and get my writing done for the day. Use that as a springboard to feel invigorated for the other stuff.

Can you tell me more about Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative?

CJEI focuses on employers, criminal justice-impacted individuals and people who work within the criminal justice system. We aim to reduce barriers to work for people who are justice-impacted. We work on enabling people to overcome bias and stigma, and to engage people in training and opportunities, so employers can feel comfortable hiring, and individuals can get jobs.

We do a lot of training, but we recently hired a director of technical innovation, Jodi Anderson. Jodi has built a tool that’s being piloted at Cornell’s Central HR called the Restorative Record. It’s an alternative or supplement to the criminal background check used in hiring decisions so instead of just looking at the risk of hiring someone based on something they did in the past; a decision can be based on restorative factors that predict success in the workplace. We just received funding from the State University of New York’s Innovative Instruction Technology Grant program to expand the pilot into the university’s system.

Has anyone been a big influence on you?

Two people I’ve been influenced by at Cornell are Thomas Golden and Susanne Bruyère [academic director of the Yang-Tan Institute]. They are such different people, and they use their skill sets so differently. But they both have shown that part of being smart is being cordial, developing the right friendships and being approachable. As an academic, it is easy to speak from a stilted place that makes it difficult for non-academics to understand you, including those your work affects. One thing I’ve learned from them is the importance of connecting with people to grow the impact of your work.

What have you done in your career that you are especially proud of?

I’m the proudest of the teaching and the students who are interested in disability law and policy topics. When they go on to jobs, like at the EEOC [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], I can tell that something they first thought was maybe boring has become something they feel passionate about.

What do you love about your job?

I am interested in what I’m working on. I can connect to it on a personal level. I keep on learning about myself and how I view myself in some of these cultural stories and ideologies. Every job can’t offer that, and that’s something I’m grateful for.

Working at Cornell creates unique opportunities for me to communicate about things that I’m passionate about to somebody who can do something about it. I think that’s exciting.

Providing practical information to educators, policymakers and others who assist people with disabilities is a core focus for the Yang-Tan Institute, which is part of Cornell’s ILR School. The institute conducts a combination of research and outreach. Its mission is to advance knowledge, policies and practice that enhance equal opportunities for all people with disabilities. Its research, training and technical resources expand knowledge about disability inclusion, leading to positive change. The institute currently leads over a dozen active projects. They include the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), Disability Statistics and the Center for Advancing Policy on Employment for Youth.