Wanted: Employers and Providers Willing to Talk About Hiring Workers with Disabilities

About the Author

Pam Hollingsworth is a certified employment support professional and the co-director of Employment Services for Progress Inc. Pam joined Progress in 2005 and has a background in management and employment services. Pam has a Bachelor of Science communications degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She has spent 13 years gaining experience working with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Progress is a partner in three Middle Tennessee Project SEARCH programs, an Employment Network for Social Security’s Ticket to Work program and a provider for Employment and Community First CHOICES services. Pam says the most rewarding part of her job is to assist someone in gaining meaningful, competitive, integrated employment and watch it change the person’s life by increasing independence and establishing community relationships.

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.

By Pam Hollingsworth

As many of you know, Tennessee is an Employment First state.  Employment First is a concept to help bring about the full inclusion of individuals with varying degrees of abilities in the workplace and in the community.  Under the Employment First approach, community-based integrated employment is the first and preferred employment service option for youth and adults with disabilities.  The Tennessee Employment Task Force was established to create and expand employment opportunities for all Tennesseans with disabilities.  The task force is made up of several work groups. The Provider/Employer Work Group is the one I lead.

The Provider/Employer Work Group is made up of employers and community agency providers who support individuals with disabilities from across the state who want to be a part of our mind shift from enclaves (small crews of persons with disabilities that work as a distinct unit and operate as a self-contained business, under the supervision of a job coach), sheltered workshops (segregated work settings employing only those with disabilities) and sub-minimum wages (pay below minimum wage that is permitted for individuals whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a disability) to meaningful, integrated employment and pay at or above minimum wage.

Members of this work group discuss ways we can connect employers who have already employed people with disabilities with employers who are interested, but who haven’t yet looked into this untapped market for people who have a desire to work.  Our group also trades ideas on how we can connect with more employers so they can learn about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.  We also talk about how we publicly recognize the employers who have been successfully employing people and celebrate those who are working.

The group also focuses on challenges facing community provider agencies. Some of these challenges include recruiting quality staff to support people with disabilities and low reimbursement rates preventing providers from raising the rate of pay for direct support staff.  We trade ideas on how to improve retention of good staff and better ways to recruit quality staff.  Another challenge is connecting with employers who are open to hiring people with disabilities and/or willing to let providers complete employment services within their business. Such employment services could be allowing a person to take a tour of the business to explain what the business does and to see the jobs their employees perform.  It could also be “trying out” jobs within the business to see if the person is interested and/or qualified.

So… what great things have already happened?

  • Several employers have been connected with businesses that have already hired people with disabilities, so that those employers can mentor a similar business that is ready to hire individuals with disabilities. Like Gena at the Holiday Inn sharing her experiences with Zack at the Marriott, who recently hired a Project SEARCH graduate.  (Project SEARCH is a nationally acclaimed model for transitioning students with intellectual and developmental disabilities from high school into employment through internships at community businesses. Some programs in Tennessee focus on adults with disabilities, rather than students. There are currently 14 Project SEARCH sites in our state. You can find a map of Tennessee sites here.)
  • Recruitment strategies that have been implemented to increase provider staffing such as connecting with local career centers, colleges and churches; providing a great workplace culture, benefits and bonuses, and celebrating success stories for people and employers.
  • Several community provider agencies have connected with groups (Chamber of Commerce, TennesseeWorks, Vocational Rehabilitation, etc.) to share our mission and expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
  • Increased communication of successes via social media, videos, newsletters and the Rise to Work blog. At Progress, where I work, I have a massive bell that rings when someone gets hired.  We love hearing the bell!

How can we get better at educating employers and provider agencies, sharing ideas and supporting workers with disabilities?  More work group participants will give us a larger pool of ideas and successes.  We are looking for employers and providers across the state to participate in the work group meetings.  The work group meets quarterly for an hour and a half.  Participants can meet in person or conference in via phone.  Interested persons should contact Pam Hollingsworth, p.hollingsworth@progress-inc.org.

The Provider/Employer Work Group has allowed me the opportunity to present the Tennessee Employment Task Force with ideas, goals and strategies that will move us closer to achieving the state’s Employment First objectives.  Thank you to all the employers and providers who currently participate.  I hope to hear from others who know and understand the importance of providing employment opportunities to people with disabilities or who would like to learn.  I love seeing positive things that happen when people choose employment.  It is important to note that employers and providers are having life-changing experiences as well.