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Employment First and the Council

Culture of Collaboration: How TN’s Council on Developmental Disabilities Is Moving the Employment Needle

Tennessee is bucking the infamous government stereotype of siloed, inefficient work, instead building collaboration across government and the private sector. The result is growing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Nine Tennessee state agencies work together with the private sector through an Employment First Task Force. All the work feeds into one statewide goal set last year: A 5% reduction in the employment gap for people with disabilities vs. those without by the year 2023.

Graphic with the following texts and graphs: Employment for people with disabilities; Tennessee statewide employment goal - reduce the employment gap by 5% by 2023. The Employment First Task Force monitors progress towards the strategic plan and goals, and delivers the Expect Employment report to the Governor. Bottom part of the graphic has statistics for the current employment rate - for persons with any disability it is 33% and for persons with no disability, it is 77%. the current gap between these numbers is 44%
TN's statewide disability employment goal

How is this kind of sustained collaboration happening in state government?  The answer starts with a tiny organization and a big vision.

In the 1990s, integrated employment for people with significant disabilities felt like a lofty, far-off vision. Wanda Willis, executive director of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, was determined to make it reality. The Council began hosting a monthly conversation among three state agencies about improving transition from school to employment. Over a ten year period, that collaboration launched an annual statewide transition summit, a monthly roundtable of nine cabinet-level agencies, and a large consortium of public and private partners that still exists today.   

Thanks to the early seeds planted by the Council, Tennessee was poised for the national “Employment First” movement. Employment for people with disabilities was moving from pipe dream to evidence-based best practice. In 2012, the National Governors Association made employing people with disabilities its signature initiative for the year. States across the nation, including Tennessee, began designating themselves Employment First states, promoting integrated employment as the first option for all people receiving state services. Tennessee was ready to make this declaration, which then-Governor Haslam did via executive order, because of its established partnerships and strong foundation in competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities.

Today, employment-focused groups maintain the passionate drum beat of improving employment outcomes for people with all types of disabilities. Still a small state agency, the Council continues to reach for a big vision.

a group of about a dozen men and women who work at disability state government agencies with Governor Bill Haslam and Council member Clancey Hopper, who is a young woman with a disability who works at the Grand Ole Opry. The group is on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry after the 2016 presentation of the Expect Employment report to the Governor.
Employment First Task Force in 2016 with Gov. Bill Haslam

Executive-Level Accountability: The Employment First Task Force

The Council on Developmental Disabilities plays a leadership role on Tennessee’s Employment First Task Force, established in 2013 by Employment First Executive Order No. 28. The group continues to drive the state’s progress, meeting quarterly with approximately 25 representatives from state agencies, private universities, service provider agencies, employers, and private citizens affected by disability. The Task Force manages a statewide strategic plan that organizes and guides all the work across public and private partners.  The Task Force reports on this work – celebrating successes and holding all partners accountable for progress – every year. The report is delivered to the Governor in person at a ceremony location highlighting an employment initiative, often well outside the capital. 

a group of about 15 men and women who are state policymakers around disability related agencies and programs in TN sitting around a conference room table and posing and smiling for a group photo
TN Employment Roundtable, 2017

State Agency Collaboration: The Employment Roundtable

The Council on Developmental Disabilities is the only entity tasked with conducting a full review of all state disability programs. This gives the Council unique insight into just how many of these programs – 68 at our most recent review – are scattered across dozens of state agencies, boards, and commissions. The Council responded to the obvious need for a central gathering to share information and build partnerships across state programs addressing employment for people with disabilities. This gathering takes the form of a monthly “roundtable” discussion that has grown to include 12 departments. Nearly every month, the meeting also features an outside speaker who wants to reach the disability service system in one place. Attendance rates stay around 90 percent, showing the value agencies place on the opportunity.

The meetings have built trust among agencies working toward the same goals and have led to direct collaboration. This includes a formal memorandum of understanding coordinating youth transition services. Tennessee’s Medicaid agency and vocational rehabilitation program developed joint intake training, addressing long-standing confusion over who pays for employment services when a person qualifies for both programs. In a very recent example, leaders from the Department of Labor and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services met at the Roundtable and are now partnering to address employment for people affected by the opioid crisis. At every meeting, at least one member has a “light bulb moment,” connecting dots to improve an employment program. Because of the Roundtable, Tennessee’s disability programs no longer operate in silos.

A Uniting Public-Private Partnership: TennesseeWorks

The TennesseeWorks partnership is led by one of Tennessee’s University Centers on Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC), but includes the work of any agency, organization, or business that wants to participate. TennesseeWorks is the state’s much needed “umbrella” organization comprising all of the work done across the state, and bringing those stakeholders together for a large gathering every quarter. The Council co-chairs the partnership’s public policy committee on increasing employment outcomes. The TennesseeWorks website, thanks to the team at VKC, hosts state and national data – giving everyone a central and trustworthy source for information. The website is updated regularly and features resources for self-advocates, employers, policymakers, providers, and educators.

The Council on Developmental Disabilities finds opportunities through its role in employment groups to build partnerships for specific employment projects.

Project SEARCH

The Council on Developmental Disabilities partnered with Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to first bring Project SEARCH to Tennessee 14 years ago, and then played a key role in replicating the national internship program across the state. Today, Project SEARCH lives under the Department of Human Services/Vocational Rehabilitation (a key member of the Roundtable and the Employment First Task Force) and boasts 17 employer sites and counting. More than 90 percent of Project SEARCH interns finish the program, and 70 percent of those go on to permanent employment. More than 300 students have enrolled in Project SEARCH just in the past four years.

a young woman in scrubs crouches down in a medical supply room looking at a shelf for supplies related to her internship at a healthcare center
Project SEARCH intern, Jackson-Madison Schools and West TN Healthcare

Inclusive Higher Education

This year, Tennessee added a sixth college certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities. East Tennessee State University began its ACCESS inclusive higher education pilot in August 2019. The Council on Developmental Disabilities worked with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center to open the state’s first inclusive higher education program in 2010 and then supported the launch of programs on additional college campuses in each grand region of the state. The Council this year led production of a video to promote the programs, which was used during summer special education trainings and will continue to be used with educators, students, and families. Inclusive higher education programs are critical to promoting employment for students with disabilities, boasting an 88% employment rate within 90 days of graduation.

Employment First State Leadership Mentorship Program

The Council on Developmental Disabilities is one of five Tennessee state agencies on this technical assistance project funded by the federal Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). The project has focused on the transformation to competitive, integrated employment, but this year has shifted focus to supporting employment for people with a dual mental health and intellectual or developmental disability diagnosis.

Personal Impact

What does it look like at the personal level when a state demonstrates a systemic commitment to competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities?

A couple of success stories adapted from the 2019 Expect Employment: Employment First Task Force Report to the Governor give a snapshot of what the state’s collective work looks like in the lives of individual Tennesseans with disabilities.

a young woman in a purple shirt with dark hair sits at a desk in front of a computer and smiles at the camera
Lauren: Amerigroup employee

Meeting Career Goals and Helping Others: Lauren

Lauren has always wanted to develop valuable bonds with people in her community. She has looked for support through many different mediums to assist with different fears she has had with community interaction, employment, driving, and communication. While Lauren showed dedication in getting her driver’s license, she and her family realized she could benefit from services offered through the Employment and Community First CHOICES program.

Lauren was enrolled in December 2016. Employment and Community First CHOICES provided a platform for Lauren to enroll in Project SEARCH in October 2018, where she could pursue a goal of obtaining full-time work using her computer skills. Through this internship, Lauren experienced an office environment that exposed her to data entry tasks, where she was able to leverage her exceptional attention to detail. She became a leader in this program. At the end of Lauren’s Internship in Project SEARCH, she was offered a full-time position as a Referral Coordinator for Amerigroup TN.

an older man with down syndrome stands in the middle of a produce section of a grocery store, surrounded by stands of pumpkins and other produce; he is holding a mop handle and smiling big, while wearing his red polo shirt that is his work uniform
Brad - employee at the Kingsport Ingles grocery store

Combining Employment and Technology: Brad

A strong work ethic was ingrained in Brad as he grew up on a Northeast Tennessee farm with his parents. It was there where he decided early on that he would one day have a home of his own and would work hard to make that vision a reality. In fall of 2018, Brad and his parents sat down with his staff and circle of support from Core Services of Northeast Tennessee and The Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) Case Manager to outline his vision for his life. Core Services is a provider participating in DIDD’s Enabling Technology Program. Through the program, the group was able to identify several types of technology that would support Brad to communicate, schedule his days for work, keep him safe, and ultimately achieve his lifelong goals. These days, you can find Brad at the Kingsport Ingles grocery store, focused on his job and earning the money he needs to support his new lifestyle. Once his shift is over, his job coach drops him off at his home nearby, where he lives alone with the support of various technology. From there, he can kick back and relax by watching his favorite show, or he can exercise in his workout room or video chat with his parents, who live just minutes away.


Moving the Needle

Real change doesn’t happen with one program or agency. It requires focused, sustained work involving every related agency, organization, and group of stakeholders. The Council on Developmental Disabilities’ unique role in building that collaboration is moving the needle on employment for people with disabilities in Tennessee.