What an Employer Learned from a Summer Internship

(One of the strategic goals of Tennessee’s Employment First Task Force is to make the state a model employer of people with disabilities. As part of that effort, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development created an internship for a person with a disability this year. After hearing Ann Thompson speak at the Think Employment! Summit recently and hearing her voice choke with emotion as she spoke about her two interns, I grabbed Ann immediately to ask her to write about her experience. I hope you will share this with employers you know.)

By Ann Thompson

About the Author

Ann Thompson is the Director for Workforce Development with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Serving statewide, she connects recruitment, expansion, and retention projects to local workforce resources. She is the primary TNECD liaison regarding education and labor initiatives, and she develops and implements interdepartmental workforce strategies. In her role, Thompson actively supports all programs under Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative and works collaboratively to increase the alignment of education and industry in Tennessee.

Our hope is that this 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.

Prior to working with the IDEAL and Next Steps at Vanderbilt inclusive higher education programs, I think it’s fair to say I walked through life without giving much thought to individuals with disabilities. I am naturally friendly and courteous, wanting to help others, but the lack of having individuals in my life who have intellectual or developmental disabilities prevented me from being conscious of the everyday struggles that exist. I was especially unaware of the workforce opportunity.

I am very familiar with the employment needs of industry in Tennessee. Just about every company I speak with in my role at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development brings up the talent pipeline and the current shortage of qualified, dependable employees. Thanks to the encouragement of our Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Ted Townsend, I now have a very different outlook on how our state workforce challenges can benefit from the inclusion of this very capable workforce.

I was given orders to create and implement a Department of Economic and Community Development internship for an individual with disabilities. Not knowing where to start, I reached out to Jeremy Norden-Paul, state director of employment and day services at Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and he connected me with programs at both Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt. After a few more calls, a site visit, and a meeting with the potential candidates, I had successfully secured two amazing young women to intern with us. Feeling very proud of my accomplishment, I quickly realized the hardest part was yet to come. I now had to find assignments and manage these young women to ensure they were provided a valuable experience.

This is when I became very nervous. What if they don’t like this position? What if I can’t count on them? What if they need too much attention? What if they are incapable of performing the duties? What if they don’t like me? All of these questions went through my mind until Peach Chinratanalab and Brittenee Whitelow showed up to work for their first day, 15 minutes early.

Brittenee Whitelow and Peach Chinratanalab

I was astonished by their ability and their desire to perform. I was impressed by their drive and willingness to learn. I was overjoyed with their humor and compassion for our team. Most importantly, I was changed and saw these young women as capable instead of disabled.

Over the course of the summer, Peach and Brittenee (along with amazing help from their career coaches, Katrina Dubree and Hannah Harris), performed research tasks, socialized with the office, met every challenge with a smile, and were early to work every single day. I also provided a work-from-home project, knowing that transportation is a large barrier for employment for people with disabilities. During those hours, the interns researched and designed a presentation about a barrier to employment they face, and they successfully presented the PowerPoint to our entire team in the large conference room as their capstone, an incredible feat.

As the summer ended, Peach and Brittenee went back school, and we did a small exit interview to find out how it went from their perspective. They told me they are more confident in their abilities to be a valued employee, and I made them promise me they would continue to grow. There were hugs and some happy tears.

Now, as I go through my day, I am aware of the lack of restrooms that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lack of elevators, the lack of accessible transportation, and the lack of a pipeline to employment for these individuals. I am committed to do anything I can to help improve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and I am confident this untapped workforce is a key component in today’s economy. I especially want to challenge others to create a workforce strategy that is inclusive of individuals with disabilities. It may take a little more time to onboard on the front end, but the benefits of dependability, diversity, innovativeness, and high-retention rates are well worth the effort.