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Breaking Ground 90 - Expanding the Workforce through Internships

by Ann Thompson, Director, Workforce Development, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

Introduction by Council staff: The Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities leads initiatives statewide to improve disability policies and practices, educates policymakers and the public about promising practices in the field of disability services, and facilitates collaboration and coordination across public and private organizations.

One of our primary goals in the State Plan that guides our work is developing leaders within Tennessee’s disability community. Promoting employment opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities is also an ongoing top priority and commitment.

One strategy we’ve identified to help achieve this goal is by promoting internships. Over the next five years of our State Plan, we hope to develop various ongoing internship opportunities for people with developmental disabilities within state government and the Tennessee General Assembly, and within organizations that serve people with various disabilities and those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

We believe internships are a great way to let jobseekers with disabilities test out work environments and learn new skills, introduce employers to the talents and strengths of employees with disabilities, and ultimately increase the numbers of Tennesseans with disabilities who are employed. 

Prior to working with Lipscomb University IDEAL and Next Steps at Vanderbilt post-secondary education programs for students with disabilities, I think it's fair to say I walked through life without giving much thought to individuals with disabilities. I am naturally friendly and courteous, wanting to help others, but the lack of having individuals in my life who have intellectual or developmental disabilities prevented me from being conscious of the everyday struggles that exist.

I was also unaware of the workforce opportunity this population of potential employees presented.

I am very familiar with the employment needs of industry in Tennessee. Just about every company I speak with in my role at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) brings up the talent pipeline and the current shortage of qualified, dependable employees. Thanks to the encouragement of our deputy director and Chief Operating Officer Ted Townsend and partnership with agencies like the Council on Developmental Disabilities, I now have a very different outlook on how our state workforce challenges can benefit from the inclusion of this very capable workforce.

I was given orders to create and implement a TNECD internship for an individual with disabilities. Not knowing where to start, I reached out to Jeremy Norden-Paul, Employment and Day Services Director at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD), and he, along with the help of the Council on Developmental Disabilities, connected me with the post-secondary programs at Lipscomb and Vanderbilt. After a few more calls, a site visit, and a meeting with potential candidates, I had successfully secured two amazing young women to intern with us. Feeling very proud of my accomplishment, I quickly realized the hardest part was yet to come. I now had to find assignments and manage these young women to ensure they were provided a valuable experience.

This is when I became very nervous. What if they don't like this position? What if I can't count on them? What if they need too much attention? What if they’re incapable of performing the duties? What if they don't like me? All of these questions went through my mind until Peach Chinratanalab and Brittenee Whitelow showed up to work for their first day, 15 minutes early.

I was astonished by their abilities and their desire to perform. I was impressed by their drive and willingness to learn. I was overjoyed with their humor and compassion for our team. Most importantly, I was changed and saw these young women as capable instead of disabled.

Over the course of the summer, Peach and Brittenee (along with amazing help from their career coaches, Katrina and Hannah), performed research tasks, socialized with the office, met every challenge with a smile and were early to work every single day. I also provided a work-from-home project, knowing that transportation is a large barrier for employment, especially for individuals with disabilities. During those hours, the interns researched and designed a presentation about a barrier to employment they face, and they successfully presented the PowerPoint to our entire team in the large conference room as their capstone project - an incredible feat.

As the summer ended, Peach and Brittenee went back to school, and we did a small exit interview to find out how it went from their perspective. They told me they are more confident in their abilities to be a valued employee. I made them promise me they would continue to grow. There were hugs and some happy tears.

Now, as I go through my day, I am aware of the lack of ADA compliant restrooms, the lack of elevators, the lack of accessible transportation, and the lack of a pipeline to employment for these individuals. I am committed to doing anything I can to help improve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and I am confident this untapped workforce is a key component in today's economy. I especially want to challenge others to create a workforce strategy that is inclusive of individuals with disabilities. It may take a little more time to onboard these employees on the front end, but the benefits of dependability, diversity, innovation and high-retention rates are well worth the effort. 

There is a group photo of eight individuals, who are the interns, their family members and job coaches. It is a very ethnically diverse group of two men and six women. One of the young women is in a wheelchair.
Summer interns at the TN Dept. of Economic and Community Development, Peach Chinratanalab and Brittenee Whitelow, are pictured with their family members, job coaches and ECD staff, including Ann Thompson (author of this article) and Chief Operating Officer Ted Townsend

Q & A with Interns Brittenee and Peach

Question: What was your favorite part of your internship at TNECD?

Brittenee: “I liked meeting new people and Governor Bill Haslam! I really liked helping people with their work and being part of a team.”

Peach: “My favorite part of the internship was getting to know all the people.”

Question: What projects did you most enjoy working on?

Brittenee: “My final presentation was fun. I did my research on other programs that work with people with disabilities in Tennessee, and I also learned fun skills about working in an office. I came up with an idea for an iPhone app to scan students’ applications, and my boss really liked it.”

Peach: “I enjoyed doing the Chamber of Commerce website project and doing the website links. Project 2 was the hardest – it involved putting all the website links on a Google spreadsheet. Also, the presentation I did at the end of the TNECD internship was pretty fun. It was all about transportation for people with disabilities. It covered things like Uber, Lyft and Music City Taxi.”

Question: How do you think this experience helped you be better prepared for employment?

Brittenee: “I learned that I need to be more independent and have to stick to my schedule. I also learned how important it is to dress professionally and to speak with my boss and write professionally in emails that I send.”

Peach: “I've been interested in office work since I was 14 or about that age - I've always admired office work.”

Question: Why do you think internships are important?

Brittenee: “Internships are important as practice for a job in life. I liked being able to practice my skills in the TNECD before I graduate into a different job. I learned a lot from my boss and now I feel more prepared for a job when I graduate from IDEAL in May.”

Peach: “Internships are important for people, no matter if they are people with disabilities or not, to give people the opportunity to see if this is a job they want to do. I think we should encourage more people with disabilities to get jobs.”