Live Your Dreams: Fourth Annual Employment Summit Puts Focus on High Expectations and Hard Work

October 3, 2016 - |

“The harder you work, the more you earn.” This quote underscored the tone and direction for much of keynote speaker Anthony Ianni’s message to attendees at the fourth annual Think Employment! Summit, held on September 15th at the Embassy Suites Cool Springs in Franklin. Mr. Ianni was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. He is the first-known athlete with autism to play Division 1 college basketball. He won two Big Ten championships, a Big Ten Tournament Title, and was a member of the 2010 Final Four team. Mr. Ianni now works for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and travels the country sharing his story and message of hard work, high expectations, and motivation.

Mr. Ianni’s keynote speech was just one highlight of a packed day filled with dynamic sessions and speakers. For the last four years, TennesseeWorks has organized the Employment Summit each September, bringing together students with disabilities, self-advocates, family members, educators, policymakers, and providers to focus on raising employment expectations and opportunities for people with disabilities. The Summit offers a unique blend of sessions aimed at empowering self-advocates, along with speakers sharing the latest on the changing employment landscape for individuals with disabilities.

Mr. Ianni’s keynote speech raised themes that resonated throughout this year’s conference, particularly during the student and self-advocate sessions. He encouraged young people to dream big, to never lose sight of hope and inspiration. During their sessions, students and self-advocates got the opportunity to share their dreams for future jobs. One student wants to work in construction. Another young woman already has plans to move to New York City and be a part of the music industry. A third student spoke about how he wanted to attend college. Students shared goals to work in food service, journalism, with animals, in childcare, and a wide variety of other industries.

During the “Hire My Strengths” session, students were asked to think about how their strengths could translate to future jobs. How are they good students? What makes them a good friend? A good athlete? Often, these strengths are the same qualities employers are looking for, such as good teamwork, practicing, listening to instructions, helping others, having a good sense of humor, and turning in work on time. Several students mentioned asking for advice as a strength, something Mr. Ianni also referenced in his remarks. Mr. Ianni credited many people in his life, including teachers, parents, and coaches, who helped him achieve his goals, stressing that too many young people feel like they should never turn to others or rely on help. As part of the “Hire My Strengths” session, students wrote their unique strengths on signs and got their pictures taken as part of the upcoming “Hire My Strengths” campaign during National Disability Employment Awareness Month (see link below).

It’s important to dream big, but motivation and hard work are also key to living your dreams, another core theme throughout Mr. Ianni’s remarks. His incredible motivation propelled him to success. Can you look in the mirror and know you gave 100% effort? Will you get up the next day and give 110%? These are lessons his parents instilled in him from a young age. During “Perfect Pitch,” students began to craft how they could share their strengths and goals with employers. They developed a 90-second introduction for job fairs and interviews. With these elevator pitches, students began to think beyond their dreams and how they might work towards achieving those goals.

The “Employer Mingle” provided students and self-advocates with an opportunity to network with employers and practice their elevator pitches. Employers from such diverse businesses as Comcast, Holiday Inn, Old School Farm, Averitt, and Goodwill talked to students from the school groups. Unlike previous years, school groups and self-advocates were provided with a couple guided activities to facilitate networking. For example, conference organizers developed a bingo game students used to start conversations with businesses. Oreyanna Jones from Comcast said the conference was a “good opportunity to allow the students and their parents network and meet employers with available opportunities in the area.”

The presence of the school groups and self-advocates is always a key highlight of the Summit, but other conference sessions also provided important information on increasing employment opportunities and outcomes for all Tennesseans with disabilities. Conference attendees were able to choose from a variety of sessions, such as the ABLE Act, affordable housing, healthcare, WIOA, inclusive higher education, Supporting Families Lifecourse tools, Putting Faith to Work, and more. A session on the new Employment and Community First CHOICES waiver program was particularly popular this year. Karen Lee, Executive Director of SEEC (Seeking Equality, Empowerment, and Community for People with Developmental Disabilities) in Maryland, presented on the transformation of employment policy and implementation that has taken place in her state.

The summit was sponsored by the TennesseeWorks partnership, with administrative leadership from Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. TennesseeWorks is supported by a Project of National Significance: Partnerships in Employment Systems Change grant from the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Generous contributions were provided by the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Blue Care of Tennessee.

For more information on the annual Think Employment! Summit, visit this site:

For more information on Anthony Ianni, visit this site:

For more information on the Hire My Strengths campaign, visit this site: