Breaking Ground 107 - Transformation at Every Level: Change Comes to VR

The Tennessee Department of Human Services (TDHS) is on a journey of transformation. Changes began a couple of years ago. The vision: center everything on providing customers with the best experience possible. Those customers include people with disabilities served through the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program – the state’s largest program supporting people with disabilities to find jobs and launch careers.

At every level of leadership, the Division of Rehabilitation Services – which oversees VR and other programs – has taken a fresh look at who, how, and why they serve. The Council has supported the work of transformation in a couple of ways:

  • Investing in a year-long, nationally recognized person-centered training for ALL division staff, from front-line counselors to top leadership. Experts from Griffin Hammis Associates focused staff on helping every person find the right job with the right supports to thrive and meet their personal goals.
  • Working together with Griffin Hammis and VR leadership to review and update policies to embody a person-centered approach. These changes help VR put into practice an approach that focuses on strengths and helps all customers work toward their dreams.

Together, these concrete changes make sure the experience of the customer with a disability guides all VR policies, practices, and decisions.

What does transformation really look like in practice, for the people delivering VR services every day? Below, several staff from the Division of Rehabilitation Services share what they’ve learned.

In Their Own Words: What has person-centered training meant for you?

Kristen Martin, VR Counselor: “There was a line one of the trainers said that went something like ‘getting to know individuals rather than just getting to know what job they want,’ and I felt like that was a perfect summary of our role as VR counselors. I was reminded that it isn’t just about getting them ‘a job’ and moving on, but rather working with them and discovering what job would best fit their personality and individual gifts and talents.”

Lucy Crider, VR Counselor: “The take-aways I learned from person-centered training include – appreciate the customer’s culture and serve them holistically.”

Nicole Dawson, VR Counselor: “The training reminded us that in many cases, people experiencing disabilities can feel a loss of autonomy… and that VR counselors should repeatedly express to the customer both verbally and by their actions that they (the customer) are the authority on their own lives and have the right to choose their path.

The person-centered training helped to refocus my practices. I became more intentional about engaging in extensive conversations with the customers about their short and long-term employment goals.

One recent customer who is experiencing both blindness and mental illness comes to mind. As I was developing his individual plan for employment, the customer continually experienced challenges related to his mental health. That required that I engage in multiple conversations to allow him time to process and decide upon his employment goals. He outlined his concerns, and I used counseling and guidance to help him to plan for challenges that he might face. After the customer decided on his goal, it was important to find a provider with whom he felt comfortable. The customer expressed his gratitude that his desires were honored at every step and stated that in his past experiences searching for employment, this had not been the case. All these steps were necessary to assure that the customer remained the driver in his own life and that his personal autonomy was reflected."

Jordan Herald, Regional Supervisor: “One of the most important concepts I took away from the training was that it is okay to fail. We have all failed at one point in our lives. It is okay if our customers go down an employment path that they have chosen and don’t excel (at). I believe that our counselors do everything they can do to keep our customers from experiencing those difficult situations. Sometimes, our intent to help by blocking someone from a painful experience can hinder that person from getting an experience that they are entitled to - good or bad.”

Annalise Romeiser, VR Field Supervisor: “The person-centered training was valuable to me and all of my staff. In our group discussions, we were able to really dive into the importance of community contacts and doing what is best for the customer as opposed to maintaining a caseload and just going through the motions. One of my staff told me that it radically changed his approach to intakes and gathering information and getting to know a person’s support system and what the customer values. I have also seen changes in the way that we do business on the whole. No longer are we solely focused on quantity of services, but instead on the quality of the services we provide.”

Sandra Ray, Regional Supervisor: “I realize that those of us in Vocational Rehabilitation can no longer make assumptions. We have to understand our own biases, even though we may not feel that we have any. We have to maintain self-awareness. We have to respect our customers’ cultural/religious beliefs and work preferences.  Counselors are no longer the leader of the team.  They need to be co-facilitating the meeting with the customer.  The customer decides who they want at their team meeting, not us.  We have to learn to actively listen to our customers and practice patience while talking with them.  Too often in the past, we have tried to hurry through the various VR processes and have not actively listened to what the customer is actually saying to us. We need to discuss each step of the VR process with the customer and anyone they choose as part of their team to ensure they are fully involved in the decision-making process. Always, ALWAYS remember we are part of the customer’s team! We are a support and the customers need to make their decisions.”