This is a big DEAL-The Disability Employment Awareness Luncheon

By Francisca Guzman

Francisca Guzman is Director of Development & Community Relations for Disability Rights Tennessee. While her colleagues advocate to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities, she raises awareness about DRT’s mission and the services they provide to the community.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” declared Randy Lewis, retired Walgreens executive at Disability Rights Tennessee’s first Disability Employment Awareness Luncheon. The idea being the necessity of bringing awareness to the need for employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Three years later, that sentiment still rings true.

By all measures, 2014 was a landmark year for Employment First initiatives in Tennessee. When Disability Rights Tennessee held its first luncheon, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities had just released its plan to prioritize employment and independent living for people receiving DIDD services. That program, the Employment and Community First CHOICES Waiver program, was launched this July. Also in 2014, Governor Bill Haslam’s Employment First Task Force presented its report outlining the progress made in expanding competitive and integrated employment opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities. Among the recommendations made by the Task Force was the need to engage and support businesses that employ people with disabilities.

It is this last point that the Disability Employment Awareness Luncheon works to address by connecting businesses, government, nonprofit, and community leaders and sharing with them tools and resources to help build inclusive workforces. It is often not that businesses do not want to hire people with disabilities, but rather that they do not know how to go about it. Terms such as reasonable accommodations and job coaching mean very little without the real world examples provided by business leaders, such as Randy Lewis, who have done it. And yet, there were some who could not see how they could replicate what Walgreens, a Fortune 500 company, did without the same resources.

At last year’s luncheon, our speaker, Jeff Huffman, responded to that question by telling the story of opening and running a hotel where at least 20% of the employees are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Huffman highlighted how appropriate high school transition services and post-secondary training increase employment success for young adults with disabilities. More importantly, Huffman’s story showed the intersection of business, government, and the nonprofit sector and how by combining resources and expertise, hiring people with disabilities is a win-win for all.

Deb Dagit, the keynote speaker for this year’s Disability Employment Awareness Luncheon, brings another perspective for business leaders. Dagit, a person with a disability herself, pioneered diversity and inclusion for people with disabilities at a time when there were not many products or services available. During her almost 12 years as the chief diversity officer at the pharmaceutical company Merck, Dagit became a fierce advocate for the diversity issues she experienced personally as well as for the diversity and inclusion of others. Dagit’s strategies apply across all sectors, but resonate strongly as we look to increase the employment of people with disabilities at each level of an organization—including leadership. Internal diversity councils and securing effective executive mentors are tactics that can help an employee with a disability pursue the promotion to executive leadership. The idea is that it is not enough just to get people with disabilities through the door. For Employment First to move from being an idea to becoming an everyday practice, the work does not stop with that first hiring step.

The Task Force recommendation addresses a fundamental motivator for most people. We are more apt to engage in an activity—whether that is attending an event or implementing a policy—when we know someone else who will be there or if we are asked to do so by a peer. By that same idea, the voices that are the strongest are not those of service providers and community partners, but rather those of self-advocates and their family members. Part of Lewis’, Huffman’s, and now Dagit’s success is due to a unique perspective that they bring as parents and self-advocates that amplify their ideas and strategies. We encourage family members to join us at this year’s DEAL and connect with business leaders to share the personal stories of the impact of Employment First policies. DEAL 2016 provides an environment for that conversation to take place and the resources that motivate businesses to make a “deal” to hire people with disabilities.

Disability Rights Tennessee’s Third Annual Disability Employment Awareness Luncheon will be held Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, at the Music City Center in Nashville. Tickets are available at bit.ly/DEAL16. Through Sept. 15, use the EARLYBIRD discount code to receive $25 off a single-ticket purchase. For more information, contact Francisca Guzman at franciscag@disabilityrightstn.org

For those of you who may not be familiar with Disability Rights Tennessee, DRT is Tennessee’s Protection & Advocacy System, which is mandated by the federal government, and has represented—at no cost—more than 40,000 clients with disabilities since 1978. Their mission is to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

DRT provides services to people with disabilities across the state with numerous issues, including employment discrimination, safety in schools, abuse and neglect, and access to community resources and services.

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 janet.shouse@vumc.org.

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