New Initiative Links Students Seeking Useful Experience to People with Disabilities Needing Staff

/ September 20, 2022

By Naveh Eldar

The severe shortage of direct care workers is well-known and well-documented. The shortage of caregivers, direct support professionals, job developers, and even home health aides is impacting so many populations. This includes aging adults, people with physical disabilities and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When I took on the role of manager for workforce development at BlueCare, one of TennCare’s three managed care organizations, in October 2021, I initially was focused on provider agencies that supported individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, specifically those working with Employment and Community First CHOICES and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ 1915c waivers. The picture was grim. To be honest, the picture continues to be grim, with national leaders starting to fear that home- and community-based services are in jeopardy. I spoke to leaders from across the country. I met with national award-winning programs. There were no truly effective initiatives out there. That may not be the nicest thing to say, but it’s the truth, and we’ve traveled far beyond the time to be anything but honest and pragmatic. We can’t think in tens of new workers but need to think in terms of hiring hundreds.  Or thousands, if possible.

Lunch leads to a wonderful idea

Very shortly after taking that position, I had lunch with a good friend, Lauren Pearcy, who in January became the executive director of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. We were meeting to catch up, and not to solve any world problems. She specifically told me she knew little about direct care workforce strategies and didn’t want me to expect much help from her. Of course, we spent the entire lunch brainstorming. We very quickly turned toward the idea of students becoming direct support staff. It made so much sense!

Students are passionate, bright, want to impact the world, and don’t mind part-time work or a lack of benefits, which often are realities in the field of direct care. Additionally, they need experience with people with disabilities to become better professionals. Part of Lauren’s and my conversation was about the multiple guests on my podcast, The Landscape, who complained about how professionals know so little about the disability community. Try finding a dentist that has experience soothing a young woman with a diagnosis of Down syndrome. How many medical professionals are clumsy when transferring an individual with quadriplegia? It is a gap, which means it’s a need. I knew other states had already started using high school students in this workforce as well, and they had proven to be extremely reliable, so they had to be included.

Medicaid waiver provider agencies have been targeting university students as possible workers for years, with minimal success. The challenge was building something that makes sense for every partner involved, and I felt certain what started as a seedling and was growing in my imagination, relied on universities. A college student probably wouldn’t listen to an insurance company, or a business owner trying to entice them to work for a woefully average student wage. However, they would listen to their mentors, their professors, and deans of their departments. And so that is where I started. I knew that was the only path forward.

Four universities jump on board

While my team and I wanted something big, we knew it had to be manageable, so I was focused on four universities – one in each region, and Vanderbilt University. My dream list was East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Memphis. I reached out to department heads of programs for which this work made sense. Being a direct support staffer for individuals with IDD was logical for students who wanted a future in education, social work, health care, etc. I was absolutely shocked at how fast the universities came on board with the idea. The head of the social work department at MTSU stated that 90% of their students worked, but the faculty was constantly telling the students to stop working in fast food because such jobs weren’t preparing the students for their future. However, she had nowhere to recommend for them to work. This program changes that.

Within a few short months we had commitments from 13 departments across those four universities. The benefits were clear: experiential learning, preparation for careers, resume building to be a competitive applicant upon graduation, mentorship and more. Plus, BlueCare Tennessee offered each school scholarship funds that college students could qualify for after working for at least one academic year.

High school students can also be DSPs

Simultaneously we started working with the Tennessee Department of Education. In ECF CHOICES, there is no requirement from TennCare for a DSP to be 18 years old. Just as we targeted certain majors in the universities, I wanted to target seniors who were in Career and Technical Education tracks to enter fields such as healthcare, teaching K-12, social services, etc. The Department of Education was very excited about offering this opportunity and experiential learning to the students. An added bonus was that all 13 university departments committed to weighing work in this field favorably in their admissions process. Plus, let’s not forget that these students could also qualify to potentially receive scholarships.

Once we announced publicly that this initiative, which we are calling Leaders in Inclusive Services or LINCS, would be rolling out, support came from all sides. Those on the waiver programs and their parents reached out to say how amazing this talent pool has been for them. One parent insisted on giving a personal testimonial in a town hall meeting we had for all provider agencies to explain the program. Providers sent me enthusiastic emails and texts. Certainly, there are some who have reservations, but the majority have been very optimistic. Advocacy groups wanted to give support, which is how the landing page for Leaders in Inclusive Services ended up on The Arc Tennessee website. This work on LINCS has been very exciting.

Deaf students have a key opportunity

One of the most unexpected connections was made without my knowledge. A partner at the Department of Education, Alison Gauld, was meeting with Vocational Rehabilitation, and the topic came up of providing technical assistance to provider agencies who support individuals who are deaf. Then the statement was made that there were also so many deaf students who don’t have student employment. That was a light-bulb moment for Alison, and she explained this workforce development program. Fast forward, and not only are we going to target deaf students who use ASL as a first language to support individuals who use ASL as a first language, but the National Deaf Center has already done a training for our providers on hiring deaf staff. We are working together to find other ways to partner in this initiative. As I wrote in a social media post, “Language is essential to good outcomes.”

You can help!

Building all these connections has been the hard part. Now comes the harder part, which is getting full buy-in from both provider agencies and students. I don’t want to see dozens of postings for these Leaders in Inclusive Services positions, I want to see hundreds. I don’t want dozens of students clamoring for this opportunity, we need hundreds and hundreds. That is where we can all chip in! Speak to providers and encourage them to post for part-time jobs for these gifted nursing, social work, education students. If you have contacts in the school system, make sure they are aware of the program and share it with their students. You can either share the website listed above or this blog post.

I’m friends with Susie Rutkowski, the co-founder of Project SEARCH, which is a type of internship program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities that has sites across Tennessee and the world, and Debbie Becker, a founding team member of Individual Placement and Support, a supported employment program widely used to help those with mental health conditions get and keep a job both in Tennessee and elsewhere. I know the growing pains and patience it takes to build a program from the ground up, and I know help is needed, if there is help out there to be had. So, this post isn’t simply for educational information, but it is a call to action. This has a far greater chance of success with you behind it. Yes … YOU … don’t turn and look at anyone else. We need you to help change the world!

For more information, please contact me at

As the parent of a young adult who relies on direct support staff every single day, I’m absolutely delighted to learn about this program. I hope that it helps transform the direct support workforce and eases the severe shortage of DSPs in our state. As I have learned over the years, one of the very best ways of getting people enthusiastic about teaching, working with, or providing health care to individuals with disabilities is personal experience with individuals with disabilities. Often that individual is a son or daughter, a sibling, a favorite aunt, or a beloved cousin. Sometimes it’s a neighbor or a fellow student or a summer camper. But the lived experience of getting to know an individual with a disability is frequently a driving factor. This initiative offers a way to gain that lived experience AND improve the lives of people with disabilities across our state. I believe Tennessee will be a leader in this arena! I’m thankful to Naveh and his “brainstormers” who came up with this plan! If you have a question or concern, please email me at Thanks for reading!

Naveh Eldar has worked in the field of disability services for more than 20 years. Most recently he has worked on the Long-Term Services and Supports team at BlueCare in three roles: employment specialist, manager of workforce development, and is currently the director of Intellectual and Developmental Disability Programs. Naveh is also host of the disability-focused podcast The Landscape, where he interviews leaders and influencers from all over the world. The Landscape podcast is hosted on TennesseeWorks. 

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