A Lot Has Happened in 10 years of TennesseeWorks

/ November 1, 2022

By Janet Shouse

A little over 10 years ago, a group of motivated and caring people formed what they chose to call TennesseeWorks, and this group had one goal in mind: to increase the number of young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are employed in Tennessee.

This group wanted to continue earlier efforts in Tennessee supporting employment of people with disabilities and to make sure that every young person with a disability could find a good job, with good pay, that brings them real satisfaction, and that makes a real difference. This group, TennesseeWorks, began working to make policy changes so that competitive, integrated employment is the first and desired choice for every Tennessean who receives disability services.

My colleagues Elise McMillan and Erik Carter, co-directors of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, and I decided to highlight the past 10 years of work by TennesseeWorks and its partnership. Elise and Erik Carter are among the founders of TennesseeWorks.

Before 2011/2012–Building on previous employment-related work in Tennessee, a number of statewide groups and agencies met and kept meeting to develop opportunities on a statewide basis to increase employment of people with disabilities in Tennessee.

September 2012—The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through its Administration of Community Living, awards a five-year $1.8 million grant to the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities: Partnerships in Employment Systems Change. We called this project the TennesseeWorks Partnership, and it includes state agencies, departments, disability organizations, Medicaid waiver provider agencies, employers, educators, and individuals with disabilities and family members.

This project was aimed at equipping:

  1. Young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to aspire to competitive work from an early age.
  2. Families to pursue competitive work for their members with disabilities.
  3. Educators to prepare students for competitive work throughout their schooling.
  4. Service systems to support competitive work in every corner of the state.
  5. Communities to benefit from the gifts and contributions of people with disabilities.

October 2013–Gov. Bill Haslam signs the Executive Order creating the Governor’s Employment First Task Force. The order also includes the requirement of an annual report to the governor.

The Employment Roundtable, which was initially created in 2004, has continued to grow over the past 10 years. In 2004, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities began convening state agencies and the Tennessee Developmental Disabilities Network, which consists of the DD Council, Disability Rights Tennessee, and Tennessee’s two University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities—the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and the UT Center on Development Disabilities. The Roundtable got together every month to work together on improving transition services for students with disabilities. The group is now the Tennessee Employment Roundtable and continues to meet, but with a greater focus on employment. The Roundtable is a partnership among more than 10 state agencies and the DD Network working together to identify gaps in services, to make sure programs are work together in the best ways possible, and to improve employment outcomes across the state for people with disabilities.

2014–Expect Employment Reports begin. The next annual report and presentation will be Nov. 22, 2022. The new report will be given to Gov. Bill Lee at the state Capitol at 11:00 a.m. and will highlight the Individual Placement and Support program of supported employment. Previous reports can be found at the state’s Employment First Task Force website.

January 2016 –“Rise to Work” blog—begins.  I  offered to write and coordinate this blog primarily because I knew, as the parent of a young adult with a disability who was getting ready to exit high school, how much families rely on their schools to provide information on services and activities and how difficult it can be to find the right supports once their son or daughter is needing help in the “adult world.” They no longer have a central hub to find out about programs and services, and individuals and families have to go looking on their own. (The nearest thing to that central hub is , which I highly recommend that everyone bookmark and use frequently.) One thing that we’ve found out about the “Rise to Work” blog is how useful the archive can be. While some blog posts are time-sensitive and out of date, many posts continue to be accessed and help individuals learn about programs and supports from which they can benefit. If you’ve not done so, check out the archives at www.tennesseeworks.org/blog/

June 2016–The launch of the Employment and Community First CHOICES waiver program, a first-of-its-kind in the nation. This waiver program focuses on helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain employment, which previously had not been a particular focus of our state’s waivers. Learn more about ECF CHOICES here: https://www.tn.gov/tenncare/long-term-services-supports/employment-and-community-first-choices.html

Among other notable accomplishments in 2016 and 2017:

  • Memorandums of Understanding were signed among several state departments aimed at providing a seamless and coordinated transition of services from school to work to community living. While MOUs sound boring, they are often vital to making connections among various department so that work can be aligned.
  • Transition Tennessee, transitiontn.org, a website supported by the Tennessee Department of Education and Vanderbilt University was launched. The site is aimed at providing needed information and training to teachers and parents of students, primarily ages 18-22, about making meaningful plans for life after high school.
  • Multiple Project SEARCH sites were added across Tennessee. Some sites are connected with school systems and serve students exclusively. Some sites are for those adults already out of school, and these projects offer unpaid internships that have a very high rate of employment success. To see the list of Project SEARCH sites, go to https://www.tn.gov/humanservices/ds/vocational-rehabilitation/transition-services/project-search.html
  • Pre-Employment Transition Services were begun, which connects the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation with students as young as 14 as they begin to plan for employment after high school.
  • Inclusive higher education programs expanded across Tennessee for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To learn more about such programs, visit: http://tnihealliance.org

From 2017-2022—

  • Legislation, sponsored by Sen. Becky Massey, was passed to make Tennessee a “State as a Model Employer,” and Tennessee is now working to demonstrate leadership in hiring people with disabilities across state government.
  • Project SEARCH has now expanded to 19 sites.
  • Transition Tennessee now provides training to providers of Pre-Employment Transition Services, through a separate Pre-ETS portal.
  • Tennessee began its Tennessee Believes program, which provides funding opportunities to colleges and universities wishing to create inclusive higher education programs. Learn more here: https://www.tn.gov/didd/for-consumers/tn-believes.html
  • Inclusive higher education programs have now expanded to eight across Tennessee, including one at a community college.
  • The Individual Placement and Support Program, ipsworks.org, has expanded greatly over the past several years. Learn more about our state’s supported employment program, primarily for people with mental health and substance abuse conditions, at https://www.tn.gov/behavioral-health/mental-health-services/ips-supported-employment/learn-more.html
  • Tennessee set a goal to try to narrow the employment gap between the percentage of individuals without disabilities who are working and those with disabilities who are working. At the time, the gap was 44%, and the aim was to close the gap by 5% by 2023. Amazingly, despite COVID-19, our state closed the gap to 39% by 2020. We will continue to update this goal.
  • The Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities launched its new Medicaid Alternative Pathways to Independence Program this week and has begun to accept applications. Learn more about MAPs and apply at: https://www.tn.gov/didd/for-consumers/maps.html

Second Strategic Plan 2021-2024–Having met some of the goals from the first Strategic Plan, the Employment First Task Force and the TennesseeWorks Partnership decided to create a new plan. The plan that sets goals and helps us measure progress toward making sure, someday, people with disabilities have the same employment rates as people without disabilities. Each goal has multiple strategies that aim to make the goal a reality. The goals include:

  1. SERVICE ALIGNMENT: Make sure employment programs work together so that it’s easier for the customer to find and use those programs.
  2. TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION: Make sure employment programs offer technology to support people with disabilities in employment.
  3. EMPLOYERS: Increase the number of employers who value and hire people with disabilities.
  4. COMMUNITY AWARENESS: Build awareness and shared commitment to Employment First. This means all Tennesseans will believe that everyone can work with the right supports.
  5. STUDENT TRANSITION: Prepare students for life after high school.

While TennesseeWorks and the Employment First Task Force have made strong strides in improving the employment landscape for Tennesseans with disabilities, there is still much to be done. We need more employers who see the value of hiring people with disabilities and will commit to recruiting and hiring. We need more families who encourage employment. We need more teachers and Vocational Rehabilitation providers to think creatively about jobs that individuals with disabilities can and want to do. We need more communities wanting the benefits of having everyone who desires a job to have one. And we need more individuals with disabilities who view themselves as able to get a good job, with good pay, that brings them real satisfaction, and that makes a real difference in their community.

I am delighted that I get to have a role in TennesseeWorks, and that I get to share the news that I hear. Thank you for reading, and if you have questions or concerns, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

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.

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