Who Makes the Difference for People With Disabilities Gaining the Right Job?

By Jennifer Bumble

About the Author

Jennifer Bumble is a recent graduate of the Vanderbilt University doctoral program and  returned home to St. Louis to serve as an assistant professor of special education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is excited to use the knowledge and skills she gained during her time in Tennessee to support families, educators and people with disabilities in her hometown. To learn more about her research, visit https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jennifer_Bumble

You can also reach out to Jennifer directly at bumblej@umsl.edu.

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.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (which IS October), let’s take a trip. We’ll pass on tropical islands or distant cities and land in the place where it all began … high school.

Now, before the big hair and formidable fashion trends set in, take a moment to reflect on your employment journey. If you’re like me, your dream job might look a little bit different at age 16 (Kmart cashier) than it does now. And moving beyond that first dream job you can probably recall a series of experiences that taught you critical skills (consulting in human resources), helped uncover your strengths and passions (teaching at a middle school), and exposed your limits (working the Taco Bell drive-thru). But what about the individuals you encountered along the way? Is there one person—or a network of people—who helped you find success?

This question of “who makes the difference” has become the focus of my efforts as a researcher and teacher educator; and the question emerged through my experiences in Tennessee.

During my work with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, I had the pleasure of working alongside more than 30 diverse communities to host “Community Conversations.” If you’re in Tennessee, you may have attended one, but for those new to the idea, a Community Conversation is an approach to bringing a wide cross-section of community members together in one room to address a pressing local issue. Powered by chocolate and coffee, these community members spend two hours brainstorming solutions grounded in the unique assets, resources, and priorities of their community. This localized approach to systems change is highly effective, and we used this approach at TennesseeWorks to chip away at big issues such as increasing employment opportunities, expanding post-secondary education options, and supporting the independent living goals of young people with disabilities.

Along the way I learned a lot about the power of a community and who needs to have a seat at the table to improve outcomes for youth with disabilities. Spoiler alert: it’s not just the folks in positions of power.

To really move the needle on outcomes for students with disabilities and their families, we need a mix of teachers and members of disability organizations and into the larger community—local employers, faith community members, civic leaders, community organizations, concerned citizens and others. These are the folks who “make a difference” as youth are preparing for life after high school, and they are also folks who are rarely connected to the educators and school systems guiding the transition process. This gap between school systems and communities is where I invest.

In my work, I partner with communities to help them identify barriers facing people with disabilities in their area and which strategies they might employ to dismantle those barriers. Strategies could include a large event like a Community Conversation, but sometimes action requires smaller, more purposeful groups like coalitions or advisory councils. I help them align the problem with the strategy. I also help teachers map, refine, and build their social networks to connect them with the community groups and individuals who will have the biggest impact for their students after graduation. I develop interventions for teachers to connect with these folks; building deeper and more reciprocal partnerships. Whether working with community organizers or individual educators, the goal is always the same—creating interwoven networks of passionate and resourceful individuals who might support a student with a disability as they search for a job, continue their education, or begin life in the community.

So, you might be wondering how this applies to the issues facing you or your community. Simply put—you are the network. Each of you reading this post know an individual with a disability or a family member who is facing the “transition cliff.” How can you step in and assist? Can you connect them to a friend who owns a small business who might be willing to hire? Can you provide mentorship in applying for a job? Can you help someone get to work when public transportation isn’t dependable? No matter your role in the community, you have something to offer, and you can likely connect an individual to services, supports and opportunities in the community. You can be the person who “makes a difference.” Don’t let National Disability Employment Awareness Month pass by without taking action.


Jenn and I worked together for several years on the TennesseeWorks project before she moved on, and I so appreciate Jenn’s enthusiasm for her work. I also appreciate her promptness is getting her story to me on time! I know she would be happy to connect with you if you have questions, but you can always email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org with questions as well. Thanks for reading!