Tennessee State Departments Celebrate a Decade of Purpose, Progress, and Partnership in Employing People with Disabilities

June marks 10 years of Tennessee as an Employment First state
Tuesday, June 13, 2023 | 10:58am

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Several state agencies, disability service providers, and advocates are pausing to mark a decade of focused collaboration and success in expanding high-quality employment opportunities for people with disabilities in Tennessee.

On June 13, 2013, then Governor Bill Haslam issued an executive order establishing Tennessee as an Employment First state, and Governor Bill Lee continued the work when he became Governor in 2019 with life-changing results for countless Tennesseans. The order directed state agencies that supported Tennesseans with disabilities to empower them to pursue competitive integrated employment opportunities. The order also called for the creation of a task force of state agencies, disability service providers, and advocates to identify barriers, find best practices, pursue funding, and develop training in line with the goal of competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities.

For decades, the highest employment expectation for most people with disabilities was menial work, often for sub-minimum wages, performed in closed settings apart from normal workplaces. Most people with disabilities weren’t considered part of the workforce or asked about their preferences. But in reality, a great number of people with disabilities wanted to pursue employment opportunities for real wages in workplaces where they could earn a living, make friends with coworkers, and fully participate in the communities where they lived.

The establishment of Tennessee as an Employment First state in 2013 marked a milestone in the push for greater opportunities, and the collaboration among state agencies and community partners paved the way for substantial gains in the years that followed.

  • Completion of a 2018 goal to close the employment gap between people with disabilities and people without a disability by 5 percent by 2023
  • Thousands of Tennesseans with disabilities supported to gain meaningful, competitive employment through supports like ECF CHOICES, Vocational Rehabilitation, Individual Placement and Support (IPS) Supported Employment model, Enabling Technology, etc.
  • Improving transition from school to work for students with disabilities through training and resources with programs like Transition Tennessee
  • Expansion of access to inclusive higher education opportunities with the support of the Tennessee Believes grant
  • The creation of a savings program called ABLE TN designed to help Tennessee residents with disabilities
  • The State as a Model Employer program designed to implement best practices and procedures related to recruitment, hiring, advancement and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities as state employees

Partners participating in the decade of Employment First efforts include: Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities , Labor and Workforce Development, Human Services, Human Resources, Education, Economic and Community Development, and Health; Division of TennCare; Council on Developmental Disabilities; The Arc Tennessee; Disability Rights TN; and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

“In the behavioral health field, employment represents so many things that are essential for recovery and wellness: structure, routine, natural supports, community, accomplishment, and more,” said Marie Williams, LCSW, Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “We’re so grateful to our community providers who have worked with us to help more than 8,000 Tennesseans explore their employment goals through Individual Placement and Support (IPS) Supported Employment in the last ten years, and we’re excited for the next ten years of Employment First in Tennessee.”

“Tennesseans with disabilities are making incredible contributions to our workforce and communities every day. The dedication, innovation, and partnership of the Employment First movement has shown the nation what’s possible with the right, person-centered supports,” said Brad Turner, Commissioner of the Departments of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD). “Our state will continue to lead the nation over the next 10 years as this work moves forward, blazing new pathways to competitive, integrated employment so that anyone who wants to work can find a job they enjoy.”

“The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center welcomed the opportunity to partner with the governor, state agencies and communities across Tennessee as part of this innovative and coordinated effort to ensure that youth and adults with disabilities have the preparation, opportunities and supports to access competitive and integrated work,” Elise McMillan, JD, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Director. “While much remains to be done, Tennessee has shown that when the state, universities, businesses, and the community work together, we can achieve great results. It is exciting to see what all has been accomplished since 2013.”

To learn more about Employment First in Tennessee, please visit: TN.gov/didd/for-consumers/employment--first