What is TennesseeWorks?

/ January 18, 2016

     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.

By Janet Shouse

We’re launching a new blog series! Each week, we will bring you interesting and important information on employment-related topics for family members of individuals with disabilities. Find the latest issues at www.tennesseeworks.org/blog/.

When people hear that I work at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center on a project called TennesseeWorks, they usually have an idea that this project involves people with disabilities and work. And they are right. But I get calls asking me to help find a job for a young person with a disability who is getting ready to leave high school, and I also get suggestions for businesses that we could start to employ people with disabilities. We don’t do either of those.

So what is TennesseeWorks? It is a partnership of 50 plus state agencies, departments, advocacy organizations, service provider organizations, educators, individuals with disabilities, family members and employers. Our aim is to improve the employment landscape for people with disabilities across our state, so that everyone who wants to work can find a job in their community in a workplace with people with and without disabilities at a competitive wage. Our partnership is about systems change, which means changing state policies, changing families’ and individuals’ expectations about their ability to work, changing how schools prepare and educate students with disabilities, and changing our communities’ notions about people with disabilities and employment.

And why is this important? Because too many young people spend years in school striving to meet IEP goals only to exit high school and end up sitting at home with little or nothing to do. Many times this means that mom or dad must leave the workforce to stay home with their young adult. This also means that employers are missing an opportunity to find good employees who can bring diversity and talents to their workplace.

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So what has changed through our partnership?

1. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed an Employment First Task Force and declared Tennessee an “Employment First” state. This declaration means that the first and preferred outcome for working-age youth and adults with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, is employment in the community at a competitive wage.

2. A Memorandum of Understanding was created among the Tennessee Department of Human Services/Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Department of Education/Division of Special Populations, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to improve and coordinate transition services for youth with disabilities. The aim of this MOU is to allow a seamless move from school to work for young people with disabilities.

3. Organizations that in the past have provided employment in “sheltered workshops” are moving to helping people with disabilities find employment at regular jobs with regular wages, rather than jobs paying less than minimum wage.

4. Employers are learning the value of employing people with disabilities. Our team has “The Business Case,” a presentation for businesses, employers, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, etc. that outlines the benefits of having employees with disabilities in their workforce.

5. People with disabilities are finding out they can have jobs working alongside people without disabilities, earning money and becoming more independent. They are finding out they can be productive and valued members of a business.

6. Families are learning that their child with a disability may have opportunities to do more than sit on the couch when the school bus stops coming to their house.

7. Each fall, the partnership hosts a Think Employment! Summit, where we bring together individuals with disabilities, family members, educators, employers, service providers to focus on ways to improve the job prospects for young people with disabilities.

8. We’ve also done a host of Community Conversations around the state, inviting all sorts of people to brainstorm ways to help people with disabilities find employment in their local communities.

Our partnership has four work groups that tackle the various issues we encounter: Agencies and Policymakers; Families and Youth; Employers and Providers, and Educators. We welcome participation by any interested individual. We meet quarterly in Nashville.

The TennesseeWorks website has loads of information to help individuals and families, educators, employers and agencies learn about employment for people with disabilities.

Please check it out: www.tennesseeworks.org

If you have questions about the work of TennesseeWorks or would like to join us, please contact me, Janet Shouse, at janet.shouse@vumc.org or call me at 615-875-8833.

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