TennesseeWorks Partnership and our Commitment to Employment

By Janet Shouse

About the Author

Janet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

A group of highly motivated and caring people formed TennesseeWorks in 2011 with one goal in mind: to increase the number of young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are employed in the state. In other words, the group wanted to ensure every young person with a disability could find a good job, with good pay, that brings real satisfaction, and that makes a real difference. This group that has grown to approximately 50 state agencies, disability-related organizations, community provider agencies, families and individuals with disabilities has been working ever since to implement policy and systems changes that make integrated, competitive employment the first and desired choice for every Tennessean.

In 2012, Tennessee was awarded a Partnership in Employment systems and policy change grant for transitioning youth with IDD that was funded by the U.S. Administration on Intellectual and Development Disabilities (AIDD). The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center was the lead organization for this five-year grant that formalized a statewide employment consortium that had formed in 2011 in connection with two other federal grants—one to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and one to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

In 2013, Gov. Bill Haslam signed an Executive Order creating the Employment First Task Force, which was charged with researching the barriers to employment for people with disabilities and devising strategies for overcoming those barriers.

(I joined the TennesseeWorks team in 2014 as the liaison to families and individuals with disabilities, just as the first Expect Employment report was issued.)

The five-year AIDD federal systems change grant ended on Sept. 30, but the work of the TennesseeWorks Partnership and many of our colleagues goes on.

In fact, the Governor’s Task Force on Employment of People with Disabilities will deliver its fourth annual report to Gov. Haslam on Oct. 24.

What many of us found is that it is extremely beneficial to get all these agencies and organizations and individuals in a room to learn what each is doing and to brainstorm ways to deal with barriers that arise. Breaking down the “silos” among departments has been vital in our efforts to promote disability employment efforts.

After sharing the news that the grant was ending, one question I received was: Will the web site still be available after Sept. 30?  The person wrote: “I really hope so, as it is the most valuable site I know of regarding transition, employment and so many related topics.  If not, how can I access this information?”

Rest assured my faithful reader. The website, tennesseeworks.org is still live and packed with information.

While the work of TennesseeWorks goes on, our team here at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and our partners continue to seek resources and funding to help sustain and grow our statewide efforts.

Among the accomplishments of the Partnership and its participating agencies are:

  • The creation of the Employment and Community First CHOICES waiver program, a first-of-its-kind in the nation. https://www.tn.gov/didd/article/employment-and-community-first-choices
  • Memorandums of Understanding among several state departments aimed at providing a seamless and coordinated transition of services from school to work to community living.
  • Transition Tennessee, transitiontn.org, a website supported by the Tennessee Department of Education and Vanderbilt University aimed at providing needed information to teachers and parents of students ages 18-22 about making meaningful plans for life after high school.
  • The creation of multiple Project SEARCH sites across Tennessee. https://www.tn.gov/cdd/article/project-search
  • Pre-Employment Transition Services, which involves the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation with students as young as 14 as they begin to plan for employment after high school. https://www.thearctn.org/Assets/Docs/Pre-ETS-Fact-Sheet-DRT.pdf
  • The expansion of inclusive higher education programs across Tennessee for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. http://tnihealliance.org

There remains much work to be done to ensure that every person with a disability has the ability to find and maintain a job they want and love. And TennesseeWorks will continue to work toward that goal. And I will continue to write about stuff I think is important for individuals with disabilities and their families to know.

As always, if you have a question or an idea for a future blog post, please contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.