By Jared Weber
Matthew Schwab is the epitome of a busy college student.
On a regular basis, 20-year-old Schwab balances college classes, a part-time job at Chick-fil-A, multiple volunteering gigs, managing a middle school volleyball team, and a girlfriend. This summer, he’s added “legislative intern” to his curriculum vitae, working in Rep. John Bradford’s (R-Cornelius) office at the North Carolina General Assembly.
Just one thing that makes him unique from the other swamped college kids:
Schwab has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that caused him to be born with an extra chromosome. It typically results in intellectual and/ or developmental disability, which varies in severity.
If you ask his peers, though, that’s the last thing on their minds.
“I don’t see him as someone with a disability, but rather someone who can come in here and is eager to learn,” said Anita Spence, Bradford’s legislative aide.
Schwab, who’s from Holly Springs, is Bradford’s third intern with Down syndrome in as many years. The representative hired the state’s first-ever legislative intern with the disorder, Paul Kocher — one of Schwab’s friends he’d met through the Triangle Down Syndrome Network (TDSN) — in 2016.
“Ever since, I proclaimed John Bradford as my personal hero,” Schwab said.
A chance encounter
Donna Beckmann, director of advocacy at the TDSN, has known Schwab for almost his entire life. She said it’s important to expect more out of people with Down syndrome.
“If you set high expectations, people with Down syndrome will meet them,” she said. “Matthew is a shining example of what is possible.”
His mother, Michelle Schwab, used to serve on TDSN’s board of directors. She said her family has always set a high bar for her son, and he “surpasses [it] every time.”
When he got the chance to meet Bradford last March at the state legislature, as part of the TDSN’s first annual Down Syndrome Advocacy Day, Matthew Schwab made the most of it.
He walked right up to his hero, shook his hand, and let him know how important he was to him — in front of ABC-11 television cameras.
“It’s basically almost like a dream come true because there’s only a number of people that I really do admire as personal heroes, and Mr. Bradford here is one of them,” said Schwab on the air, with the legislator standing to his right.
The state representative said the interaction moved him emotionally. In response, he offered the young man an internship.
“I had no idea who [Schwab] was,” Bradford said. “I told him, ‘We gotta see if you can come work here.’”
In order to accept the legislative internship, though, Schwab had to be enrolled in college classes. At the time, he was about to graduate Holly Springs High School. He had previously planned to take some time off schooling before starting a program at Wake Technical Community College.
If heading straight to college was what it would take to intern for Bradford, though, he was ready.
“As soon as he found out that was a requirement, he was like ‘Yep! Sign me up, I’ll go [to college],’” his mother said.
A day at the legislature
When his new legislative intern arrived for his first day on the job, Bradford made sure he knew what he was in for.
“I’ve said it from day one,” Bradford said. “This is not charity; we’re going to put you to work.”
As an intern, Schwab’s average day at the legislature consists of making phone calls, stuffing envelopes, and shadowing Bradford to the House floor for votes and some committee meetings.
Bradford said the phone calls, which Schwab makes to Mecklenburg-area business leaders to see if they have any suggestions for potential legislation, are almost always well-received.
“He just follows the script, calls business owners and it’s amazing,” he said. “The business owners have been responsive; they appreciate him calling.”
His favorite task, though, is helping Bradford file legislation that helps other people who have conditions such as his. Schwab’s mother says he’s always been interested in the political process.
“I like working with John because I get to not just learn the ins and outs of what he does, but also the ins and outs of how a bill gets … passed,” Schwab said.[sponsor]
With his intern’s assistance, the representative has filed four bills during the 2017-18 legislative session that would benefit people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in different ways.
Schwab is hoping to get as much done with the bills as he can before his time is up in Raleigh.
“We hope those bills, H981 through H984, can be put into law soon,” Schwab said. “The disability population is so underserved in America and they really need better. In order to do that, we must have the most up-to-date resources, data, medical treatment and other resources for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.”
Surprises, challenges and the future
One of the biggest difficulties for Schwab, and people with Down syndrome in general, is transportation.
The disorder prevents Schwab from driving a car, which can sometimes strain his work hours. There’s no public transportation from Holly Springs to downtown Raleigh, so Schwab’s mother has had to either coordinate rides for her son, or drive him herself.
Once he’s at the legislature, though, Spence said there’s not much around the office that Schwab isn’t capable of handling on his own.
“I think he really knows his limitations,” Spence said. “At this point, we haven’t hit anything that has been too challenging for him. He’s very eager to learn and I’ve asked him to help me out with different tasks.”
Schwab doesn’t anticipate that his summer in Raleigh will be the end of his political career, either.
Against the urging of his mother, he wants to see through the passing of the four bills he has filed with Bradford.
“My mom disapproves of it … she doesn’t want me to [keep working in politics],” Schwab said. “She says: ‘Matthew, I just want you to pass one bill and then resign.’ Uh, no. What makes you enjoy it is to stay the entire time.”
After that, he might be coming for Bradford’s post.
“I really want to snag John’s seat,” he said with a smile.