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Employment Roundtable

Council Gathers State Officials Each Month to Talk about One Thing: Disability Employment

by Lauren Pearcy, Public Policy Director, Council on Developmental Disabilities

One of the main functions of the Council on Developmental Disabilities is working across state agencies to link programs and services that support individuals with developmental disabilities in more efficient and effective ways. In the area of employment, linking programs is particularly relevant as many different state departments offer employment services that can be difficult for customers to navigate.

In 2004 the Council started convening a group of representatives from just a handful of state departments to discuss coordination of employment services. From the start, two fundamental goals have guided the group:

  1. Doing a better job of supporting individuals with their employment goals, especially as they move through a complex service system; and
  2. Increasing employment outcomes among people with developmental disabilities across Tennessee. These goals align with Governor Haslam’s government-wide initiatives of effective and efficient customer- focused government and aggressive workforce development.

Over the years, the Roundtable has steadily grown – not only in participation from the founding state departments, but from other departments who were not considered the “usual suspects” around the table for discussions about disability employment. Today the Roundtable is comprised of more than 20 individuals that represent 10 state departments (listed below) plus two of the Council’s Developmental Disabilities Network partners, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and Disability Rights Tennessee. The group’s growth is reflective of the very complex system for disability employment services. The group’s size is also a tribute to the value of the Roundtable’s work to date. 

The group calls itself the “Employment Roundtable” because the meetings are conversational in nature and very much designed to be round-robin style updates for shared learning and a safe space to air issues and questions.

“We have an active two-hour discussion at each meeting,” said Wanda Willis, the Council’s executive director. “Every single month we uncover something we did not know that a state department is doing.”

The group also started discussing “case studies” to problem-solve real life situations as a group. Through these conversations, the whole gathering begins to better understand systemic issues that no one agency can solve alone. With the goal of coordinating and making the entire service system work better, nothing compares to sitting around the same table.

What kind of things does the Employment Roundtable do, besides share information amongst each other?

  • We generate opportunities for interagency agreements and joint training.  For example, the group authored (and signed) a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to govern coordination across programs serving youth in transition from high school to adulthood. The Council serves as the oversight agency for the MOU. It is one of the lasting, long-term projects of the Roundtable.
  • We link to other disability employment groups across the state. For example, the Roundtable serves as a smaller “steering committee” of sorts for the larger Employment First Task Force, established by Governor Haslam. In this regard, the Employment Roundtable facilitates the strategic planning and report writing related to the Employment First Executive Order that would be too difficult to do with the larger Task Force group. This is another example of an ongoing project for the group.
  • We set a model at the state level for local cross-agency groups to follow. For example, in 2015 the Pre-Employment Transition Services program operated by Vocational Rehabilitation adopted the roundtable model for its pilot program in Jackson. Their Roundtable also meets monthly to discuss local program coordination and case solutions.  
  • We host guest speakers to share best practices across state government. For example:
    • Dr. Erik Carter, PhD of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has worked with the Roundtable for many years to discuss shared employment data across state government. 
    • Jude White, executive director of the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet visited the Roundtable in July to discuss the “Single Team, Single Plan” initiative she launched to coordinate children’s services across multiple agencies. A long-term goal is to implement a similar approach to coordinate disability services, particularly employment services, across multiple agencies.
    • Jonathan Martinis, national legal expert with Syracuse University, visited the Roundtable in March 2017 to discuss Supported Decision- Making. Supported Decision-Making is a model that empowers people who seek assistance in making certain decisions about their lives to do so while retaining their rights as the ultimate decision-maker about those decisions, rather than seeking a legal representative to make such decisions on their behalf. The discussions with Jonathan are focused on state agencies’ role in coordinating services effectively so that people get the support they need to be independent and empowered as their own decision-makers. The Council plans to bring Jonathan back in the fall to talk to the Roundtable about implementing the themes we discussed in March.
“The Roundtable is my favorite thing that we do,” Willis said. “We have come to care about and trust each other personally, which has elevated our effectiveness when we work together on new initiatives and common problems. It is state government at its best.”

Roundtable members (updated 2021):

  1. Council on Developmental Disabilities: Led by the executive director and supported by the public policy director.
  2. Commission on Children and Youth: legislative and policy lead
  3. Department of Children’s Services: Senior staff from youth independence programs
  4. Department of Education: Senior staff from special education programs
  5. Department of Health: Senior staff from Maternal and Child Health
  6. Department of Human Resources: Senior staff from Diversity and Inclusion
  7. Department of Human Services: Senior staff from the Division of Rehabilitation Services, including Vocational Rehabilitation
  8. Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Senior staff from employment services
  9. Department of Labor: Senior staff from the workforce program and the youth training program
  10. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services: Senior staff from employment programs and youth programs
  11. Division of TennCare: Senior staff from long-term services and supports
  12. Department of Treasury: Senior staff from the ABLE Tennessee program, the college savings program, and the retirement savings program
  13. (DD Network partners) Disability Rights Tennessee: executive director
  14. (DD Network partners) Vanderbilt Kennedy Center: co-director
group photo of about twenty adults sitting around a conference room table and smiling at the camera