Meaningful Work: Reflecting on Our Pursuits

/ December 20, 2022

By Erik Carter

“Where do you work?” We’ve all been asked this question a million times. It usually comes right after “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” Over the years, my own answers have included selling newspaper subscriptions door-to-door, umpiring youth sports, bagging groceries at Giant Foods, waiting tables at the Olive Garden, teaching high school, working as a special education professor, and many others in between.

Each of these jobs has brought good things into my life. Perhaps the same is true for you. Of course, the paycheck quickly comes to mind. But a good job also contributes to a sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and independence. It provides a place to share our strengths and gifts in valued ways. It is a way in which we live into our calling. It can lead to new friendships and supportive relationships. It provides resources and connections that enhance community involvement. The right job at the right time can be enriching and life-giving.

When individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our state are asked where they work, we also want them to be excited about the answers they share. Ensuring every Tennessean with a disability has the encouragement, opportunity, and support they need to pursue the job they want remains at the heart of our collective work as a state.

It has been a great privilege to labor alongside so many wonderful colleagues as we have all strived to change the employment landscape for our neighbors and family members with disabilities. Together, we have learned a lot about what leads toward—and away from—real work for real pay. As my time in Tennessee comes to an end, I’d like to share a few modest reflections about this critical work.

Listen intently
Our work should always be led by the aspirations of individuals with IDD. They do not have dreams of underemployment or unemployment. They do not aspire to piece-rate wages (often just a few dollars a day) and sheltered workplaces. They do not envision for themselves a lifetime of exclusion from the workforce. Quite the opposite! They want to find places where their talents, passions, gifts, strengths, and sense of calling can find a home. We must listen to the dreams of the individuals in our midst and aim everything we can in those directions.

Raise expectations
Our expectations must match these aspirations and, I would argue, exceed them. The research here is quite clear: high expectations elevate employment outcomes. When we expect youth and adults with IDD to contribute their time and talents in the workplace, it changes how we design and deliver services (e.g., educational, transition, vocational). It changes the partnerships we pursue. It changes where we allocate our funding and time. We must work to raise employment expectations among parents, providers, educators, and employers all across our state.

See strengths
Like anyone else, people with IDD have strengths and talents that can enrich the lives of others. Yet prevailing views of disability so often focus on what someone cannot do or struggles to do. This telling of a single story flattens the portrait of people who have so much to offer to the community. We must instead excel at seeing strengths and discerning where in our communities those strengths are most needed.

Equip widely
As a field, we know quite a bit about how to support people with IDD to find and maintain employment. An abundance of research-based practices related to assessment, planning, instruction, and on-the-job supports now exists. But these effective approaches are not always evident on the ground. The gap between what we know and what we do remains far too wide. We must amplify our efforts to ensure that educators, providers, and employers become or remain fluent in the best of what we know works for supporting community employment.

Engage communities
Cities and counties across Tennessee are rich with resources, people, and programs that can be drawn upon to expand and support local employment opportunities for individuals with IDD. But these assets often get overlooked when we think only about improving our service systems. We have seen the incredibly creative ways in which communities have come together to resolve pervasive barriers to employment. Indeed, the hosting of community conversation events has proven to be an incredibly powerful way of mobilizing a cross-section of Tennesseans toward this common purpose.

Measure better
We must collect strong data to determine whether we are making meaningful progress toward our employment goals as a state. We often do this by tracking overall employment rates or Vocational Rehabilitation case closures. Although it is good to know whether individuals with IDD are obtaining jobs, it is equally important to know whether those jobs are satisfying. Do these jobs offer the right hours, sufficient pay, adequate benefits, opportunities for advancement, alignment with their interests, the availability of supports, and interactions with great co-workers? In other words, is it a job they love or one they dread?

Reflect regularly
Every move we make does not always automatically mean progress. Although we can be proud of the advances we have made as a state over the last decade, we are still prone to get things wrong. To be short-sighted or uncreative. To underestimate what people with IDD can accomplish. Therefore, we must regularly reflect on the moves we are making and the changes we are seeing. We should be quick to seek out the guidance and wisdom of others, as well as to change our course if correction is needed.

We initially conceived the TennesseeWorks Partnership as “an innovative and coordinated statewide effort to ensure every youth and young adult with IDD would have the aspirations, preparation, opportunities, and supports to access competitive and integrated work.” For the last decade, we have strived to make this dream a reality. Every year, we celebrate the myriad ways in which we see the landscape changing as we prepare our Expect Employment report for the Governor. Yet there remains much work left to do. Too many people have not found a place for their gifts. And too many businesses are missing out on the wonderful contributions that individuals with IDD are eager to make. My hope is that the collaboration and creativity that has long marked work in Tennessee continues well in the years ahead.

I will dearly miss my colleagues and collaborators in this work. Each of you brings such creativity, commitment, and character to this important endeavor. Although I’m moving to another state and shifting my focus, I’ll remain just as steadfast in promoting the thriving of my friends and neighbors with IDD. Through my new position at Baylor University in Texas, I’ll be launching a new initiative on disability, faith, and flourishing. This will involve equipping faith communities to be places of inclusion and belonging, as well as exploring the myriad ways congregations can support people with disabilities and their families all seven days of the week.

I have worked with Erik on several projects, including the TennesseeWorks Partnership and Putting Faith to Work, and he’s always delightful and enthusiastic. We will miss him and his PowerPoints that have almost no words on them, yet somehow manage to tell powerful stories of employment and inclusion and belonging. I appreciate very much his willingness to write a brief history of his efforts (and others’) to improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities in our state. I often joke with Erik that his very favorite word seems to be “flourishing,” and it’s my fervent hope that Erik, his family and his new work on faith and disability will flourish in Texas! Thank you, Erik!

If you have comments or questions, please email me at Thanks for reading!

Erik Carter currently serves as co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. He will be leaving that role at the end of this year. His research and writing addresses evidence-based and principle-driven strategies for supporting inclusion and valued outcomes for individuals with disabilities in schools, workplaces, and faith communities.

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