DIDD Launches the Tennessee Employment First Leadership Initiative to Help Providers Boost Job Options

/ October 16, 2018

By Jeremy Norden-Paul

About the Author

Jeremy Norden-Paul is the state director of employment and day services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Prior to this role, he served as an elementary special education teacher, job coach, job developer, and program director.  He believes equitable access to employment is a matter of civil rights, and we must not rest until all people have the opportunity to pursue competitive, integrated employment. He lives in Nashville with his wife and daughter.  You can follow him on Twitter at @jeremyTNDIDD.

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.

There is an old adage about learning to fish.  Give someone a fish, and they will eat for a day.  But teach someone to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime.  This ancient wisdom continues to ring as true as ever in 2018.  Since 2012, Tennessee has participated in the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program, which is administered by the federal Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.  Through our involvement in this mentoring program, we have accomplished remarkable things for the Tennessee Employment First movement, which is based on the belief that all people are capable of working in real jobs and earning real wages.

For starters, the mentoring program, also known as EFSLMP, helped us build a coalition of energized supporters, which culminated with Gov. Bill Haslam signing Executive Order No. 28 in 2013, officially establishing Tennessee as an Employment First state and creating the Employment First Task Force.  Over the following years, subject matter experts from around the country who are part of the mentoring program have come to Tennessee to share their expertise in areas like:

  • business engagement (strategies for state and provider agencies to interact more effectively with businesses in order to create employment opportunities)
  • policy formation (policies, procedures, and interagency agreements that help state agencies collaborate more effectively around Employment First)
  • provider transformation (the process of shifting services from facility-based to employment and community-based)

All of these are critical areas to increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Specifically in the area of provider transformation, several community provider agencies that support people through the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities have undergone a dramatic evolution with the guidance of these national subject matter experts—they have shifted their fundamental service model to be less intent on facility-based services and more focused on employment and community-based services. (See “When the Sheltered Workshop Closes,” and “Provider Agency Finds HCBS Settings Rule Changes Work, Changes Lives.”This has led to the closure of a number of segregated sheltered workshops, a reduction in sub-minimum wages (pay of less than $7.25 an hour), increased community involvement, and more people working in their communities.  In a sense, these EFSLMP subject matter experts have been teaching DIDD providers how to fish the waters of provider transformation since 2012.  Now, six years later, we have the opportunity to start fishing those waters for ourselves.

With this goal in mind, DIDD designed and launched the Tennessee Employment First Leadership Initiative in August of this year, which is modeled after the EFSLMP provider transformation model.  The goal of this leadership initiative, also known as TEFLI, is simple—to increase employment opportunities for people supported by DIDD.  But what makes TEFLI unique is that it is completely funded and directed by DIDD and can operate independently of federal programs.  This means it can be sustainable for many years to come.  Another unique feature of TEFLI is that instead of inviting national subject matter experts from around the country to visit Tennessee, we have identified experts within the DIDD network and trained them to serve as mentors for other provider agencies across the state.  Over the next five years, we can expect to see more than a dozen DIDD providers go through the transformation process, while also gaining the experiences and skills to mentor other providers in the future.

At this point, you may be fully convinced TEFLI will have a positive impact on the DIDD provider network and will create more employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  However, you may also be wondering what specific steps are involved in the provider transformation process. While transformation looks different for each provider agency, there are five main steps that all providers will follow:

  • Self-assessment–After joining the leadership initiative and being paired with a mentor team, provider agencies will complete a detailed self-assessment to identify their strengths and areas of need. This will help set the stage for the site visit.
  • Site visit–The mentor team will make an in-person visit to the provider. They will meet with key agency staff, tour the facilities and/or community sites, speak with persons supported, etc.  This helps give the mentor team a more complete picture of the agency and will set the stage for the debriefing and action plan.
  • Debrief–Following the site visit, the mentor team will discuss the visit with the provider. They will outline key observations of their visit and consider them in the context of the self-assessment.  The mentors and the provider will work together to identify opportunities and challenges, as well as agree on recommendations to help the provider embark on its transformation journey.
  • Action Plan— After the debriefing, the provider will develop an action plan that includes areas of need, intended outcomes, benchmarks, and timelines. This plan will serve as a guiding document for the provider transformation process over the next year and beyond.
  • Follow Up— Over the next year, the mentor team will continue to check in with the provider about progress and offer support as needed.

Applications for the pilot year of TEFLI were due on Oct. 8 and selections will be announced the week of Oct. 22.

Lastly, we need to highlight the incredible mentor teams who are giving life to TEFLI.  The inaugural group of mentors includes staff from St. John’s Community Services in West Tennessee, Shelby Residential and Vocational Services (SRVS) in the Memphis area, and Core Services of Northeast Tennessee.  They have each demonstrated an outstanding commitment to the Employment First movement and have successfully guided their respective organizations through the provider transformation process.  DIDD extends its deepest gratitude to these mentor teams as we embark on our journey of learning to fish the provider transformation waters.

If you would like more information about TEFLI, please feel free to contact Jeremy Norden-Paul, DIDD’s state director of employment and day services.  His email address is Jeremy.norden-paul@tn.gov.


If you have comments or questions regarding this leadership initiative for provider agencies or other questions regarding Employment First, you can always email me at Janet.shouse@vumc.org. My thanks to Jeremy for his efforts to create these mentoring teams and to those provider agencies that have stepped up to the plate to serve as mentors.

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