She Says Goodbye, We Say Hello

By Janet Shouse

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Amy Gonzalez is a new senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

While the primary goal of this blog series is to share information about issues related to employment for and of people with disabilities, sometimes we share more personal stories.

One of the people who has been a key part in Tennessee’s move to becoming an Employment First state is Amy Gonzalez, the State Director of Employment and Day Services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. She has worked closely with the TennesseeWorks Partnership team, which includes a lot of people and agencies, to make Employment First a reality in Tennessee.

Employment First is a framework for changing systems that is centered on the premise that everyone, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life. In other words, employment is the first priority and preferred outcome of people with disabilities.

 And Amy has helped Tennessee move toward that goal.

Amy, who has a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling and who previously served as a job developer for the Vanderbilt Next Steps post-secondary program, is now moving to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. She will be the senior policy advisor managing the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program across the country. She is, to use a sports metaphor, moving up to the big leagues.

The Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program is a cross-disability, cross-systems change initiative created by the Office of Disability Employment Policy. ODEP recognized that many states want to align their efforts to support individuals with disabilities toward an Employment First approach, but may not yet possess the capacity, experience or technical resources necessary to lead such change. Amy will help facilitate those changes in other states.

She will also be responsible for creating new partnerships with federal entities such as the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Administration on Community Living. Amy will also be involved with advocacy organizations such as the Association of People Supporting Employment First and TASH, an international advocacy association of people with disabilities, their family members, other advocates, and people who work in the disability field.

There are 46 states with some type of effort focused on Employment First. At least 19 of these states have an official state policy, including Tennessee, stating that employment in the community is the first and preferred service option for people with disabilities.

As part of its Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program, ODEP launched the Employment 1st State Ambassadors Network. The purpose of the State Ambassadors Network is to highlight exemplary leadership among local and state officials who are pushing high-impact systems-change efforts to promote Employment First principles in their state or local communities. Amy served as one of eight E1st State Ambassadors last year.

Amy has been involved in many activities that have helped Tennessee toward the goal of integrated, competitive employment. Among those accomplishments:

  • Successfully convened the Employment First Task Force for three years and helped present a yearly report to Gov. Bill Haslam on Tennessee’s progress since 2013.
  • Helped create Executive Order No 28, Gov. Haslam’s order that designated Tennessee as an Employment First state, and was signed on June 19, 2013.
  • Helped draft a Memorandum of Understanding among the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Division of Rehabilitation’s Vocational Rehabilitation program, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Council on Developmental Disabilities to work together and align their services to assist young people with disabilities as they transitioned from high school to the world of work.
  • Helped create a Memorandum of Understanding between Vocational Rehabilitation and DIDD to facilitate the seamless and cost-effective coordination between the departments and to avoid the duplication of employment services.
  • Assisted the Memphis area provider agency SRVS and the West Tennessee provider agency St. John’s Community Services to revamp their services to integrated, competitive employment for those they serve, which included the closure of SRVS’ sheltered workshop and the St. John’s workshop and day center.
  • In partnership with DIDD’s Communications team, helped create the Employment First website and the Way2Work employment vignette series.

“I will be working with states across the country to ensure that funding streams and service delivery systems are an alignment with the Employment First philosophy,” Amy said. “I am excited to partner with Tennessee in my new role with ODEP and look forward to seeing the continued progress through the phase out of the use of 14(c) (subminimum wage certificates), the implementation of the Employment First Task Force Mental Health Subgroup and an enhanced data collection system.”

We wish Amy all the best in her new endeavors in Washington, D.C., and in bringing Employment First to other states.

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Jeremy Norden-Paul

We also want to introduce Jeremy Norden-Paul, who will now be serving as State Director of Employment and Day Services for DIDD.

Jeremy actually began work on Aug. 1, so that Amy could introduce him to stakeholders across the state and show him the ropes.

Jeremy began his career as an elementary special education teacher in his hometown of Phoenix, AZ. This experience allowed him to see the gap in opportunities that exists between students with disabilities and those without. He saw that schools often don’t engage students with disabilities in conversations about their future as frequently as their peers.

Jeremy then moved to Washington State, where he became an employment consultant with a provider agency. He provided personalized job coaching to employed individuals, and also partnered with the business community to create customized job opportunities for students and adults with disabilities. He played a role in creating and expanding two large-scale partnerships, with the Microsoft Corp. and the City of Seattle.

In 2014, Jeremy moved to Nashville so that his wife, Annie, could pursue graduate studies at Vanderbilt University. He has spent the past two years working at Teach For America, where he partnered with the education community to match new teachers, including a cohort of special education teachers, with high-need Nashville schools.

“I love Nashville because of the genuinely nice people, delicious food, and so many things to do,” Jeremy said.

Jeremy says he believes that access to gainful employment opportunities is a matter of civil rights and that employment should be the expectation and not the exception for all people.

“I am passionate about helping people with disabilities live life to its fullest potential,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to partnering with communities across Tennessee to increase opportunities for people with disabilities.”

Welcome, Jeremy, to the TennesseeWorks Partnership! We look forward to working with you to improve the employment landscape in Tennessee for people with disabilities.