Check Out the Highlights from the ‘Expect Employment’ Report

/ October 31, 2016

By Janet Shouse

From a newspaper perspective, this “news” is not very new, but I still think it’s important.

On Oct. 13, the Employment First Task Force gave Gov. Bill Haslam its third annual “Expect Employment” report, outlining the significant progress that Tennessee, its governmental departments, its community provider organizations, employers and individuals with disabilities and their families have made toward enhancing the opportunities for integrated competitive employment for people with disabilities.

The presentation took place at the Grand Ole Opry, and Gov. Haslam was given a guided tour by a young woman named Clancey Hopper. Clancey, who has Williams syndrome, was able to secure her dream job in 2015, working as a tour guide at the Grand Ole Opry. Here’s a brief video wrap-up of the presentation. You can read more about Clancey, and how she got her job in this year’s “Expect Employment” report. I would encourage you to look through the report; it’s very readable. You can also see a video of Clancey at her job.

As you may recall, Gov. Haslam, in 2013, signed an executive order that established the Employment First Task Force and designated Tennessee as an Employment First state. This designation means that the first and preferred option is for people with disabilities to be employed in integrated work settings and to be paid competitive wages. In that first year, the task force focused on what barriers often prevent people with disabilities from getting a job. In the second year, the task force set goals and objectives (sound familiar? Like an IEP?).

About the Author

Janet Shouse smiling outside

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

Those goals were:

1. Align service delivery systems and strengthen coordination to increase employment opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities.
2. Build shared community commitment to “Employment First” for individuals with disabilities.
3. Increase the number of businesses and employers throughout the state who actively seek and hire individuals with disabilities.
4. Make Tennessee a model public sector employer through actions to employ more people with disabilities and through policy and regulatory change.
5. Prepare students in Tennessee schools for employment throughout their education and connect them to essential services.

This collaborative work involves numerous partner agencies: the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Education, the Bureau of TennCare, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Disability Rights Tennessee and the Arc Tennessee. These agencies plus a multitude of community providers, organizations, individuals with disabilities and their families make up what we call the TennesseeWorks Partnership.

Among the objectives met this past year were:

  • DIDD shared technical assistance from the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy with TennCare to help in the design of the Employment and Community First CHOICES waiver program, which launched July 1. Input from stakeholders, including individuals with disabilities, family members and provider agencies, was also incorporated into the ECF program.
  • The creation and execution of the Youth Memorandum of Understanding on various departments’ roles in serving youth with disabilities as they transition from high school to work.
  • Provided significant input on the Combined State Plan for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
  • Trainings were conducted across the state for provider agencies and Vocational Rehabilitation staff on customized employment, which creates an individualized match between the strengths, conditions, and interests of a job candidate and the identified business needs of an employer, and can include job carving and job sharing.
  • Many communities held “Community Conversations” to bring all parties to the table to brainstorm ways to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities in those communities.
  • Expanded efforts to communicate with individuals with disabilities and their families through Family Coalition meetings in Memphis, Chattanooga and Nashville, this weekly blog and the TennesseeWorks and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities video series.
  • Presented the Employer Outreach Initiative, which outlines the sound business reasons for employing people with disabilities, to 48 state and local employer groups.
  • Expanded Project Search transition programs, is a nationally acclaimed model for transitioning individuals with IDD from high school into employment through internships at community businesses, to two new sites for a total of nine across the state. The nine programs are operating with 72 interns with disabilities. Fifty-four of the previous year’s interns are employed for at least 16 hours per week in competitive, integrated employment.
  • Developed training to educate businesses’ attorneys and human resource professionals about employment of people with disabilities.
  • Trained 325 educators on high-quality transition planning and on the value and requirements of the Occupational Diploma.
  • Hosted the Think Employment Summit in September 2015, with 275 people in attendance. (We also hosted a Think Employment Summit in September 2016, with more than 300 in attendance.)

“The U.S. Department of Labor is pleased with the outstanding progress that’s been made in the state of Tennessee over the past five years through its participation in the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.

“Tennessee continues to be a national leader in working with stakeholders to advance Employment First principles across the state’s government, and expanding opportunities for competitive integrated employment for Tennesseans with disabilities,” Perez said. “The state has made remarkable progress in aligning policies, practices and funding to increase opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities to obtain real work for real pay in their communities.”

We HAVE made significant progress in advancing the principles of Employment First in our state, and we seem to have a much higher level of collaboration among the numerous stakeholders in our state than in other states, which is wonderful! However, in the most recent statistics available, from 2014, only 29.9% of Tennesseans with disabilities were employed vs. 76.6% of Tennesseans without disabilities. That 29.9% was below the U.S. average of 34.6% of Americans with disabilities who are employed, and way below the 53.7% employment rate of those with disabilities who live in North Dakota. Yay, North Dakota!

So, we still have work to do in helping every Tennessean with a disability who wants to work to be able to do so. If you want to know about ways that you might help, please contact me at

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