Promoting Internships within Tennessee State Government for People with Disabilities

/ July 18, 2017

By Emma Shouse

About the Author

Emma Shouse is the Director of Communications for the Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Contact the DD Council to subscribe to our free Breaking Ground magazine and email newsletters, which both share important information about issues impacting individuals with disabilities and their families in Tennessee, by emailing with your email/ mailing address, or call us at 615-532-6615. We also share lots of info on social media, so follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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

The Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities is a state agency that leads initiatives statewide to improve disability policies and practices, educates policymakers and the public about promising practices in the field of disability services, and facilitates collaboration and coordination across public and private organizations. One of our primary goals in the State Plan that guides our work is developing leaders within Tennessee’s disability community. Promoting employment opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities is also an ongoing top priority and commitment.

One strategy we’ve identified to help achieve this goal is by promoting internships. Over the next five years of our State Plan, we hope to develop various ongoing internship opportunities for people with developmental disabilities within state government and the Tennessee General Assembly, and within organizations that serve people with various disabilities and those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

We believe internships are a great way to let job seekers with disabilities to test out work environments and learn new skills, introduce employers to the talents and strengths of employees with disabilities, and ultimately increase the number of Tennesseans with disabilities who are employed. With our role in state government and having governor-appointed board members (who are Tennesseans with disabilities and family members) in communities across the state, the Council is perfectly positioned to use public and private partnerships to create innovative internship opportunities that promote employment and leadership skills for Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Plus, the Council is part of the Governor’s Employment First Task Force and the TennesseeWorks Partnership, which set a goal for Tennessee state government to become a “model employer” for people with disabilities.

We see this work as a major contribution towards that goal, too.

Starting at the Top: Governor’s Office Internship Program

Last fall, our deputy director, Lynette Porter, happened to see an announcement about Gov. Bill Haslam’s Internship Program, which places Tennessee college students in semester-long internships to work directly with senior and support staff of each individual department inside the governor’s office. With applications due in just few short weeks, the Council’s executive director, Wanda Willis, and Porter acted fast and asked Tennessee’s two local inclusive higher education programs on college campuses for students with intellectual disabilities, Next Steps at Vanderbilt and Lipscomb University’s IDEAL program, whether they had any students interested in applying for this internship.

Willis and Porter then met with the director of the Governor’s Internship Program, Lindsay Bales, to learn more about the program and determine whether the governor’s office would be willing to consider “non-traditional” students for the internship, like those attending inclusive higher education programs (which are not typical degree programs). The three brainstormed together about what an internship in the governor’s office might look like for a student with intellectual disabilities. Bales and her colleagues were enthusiastic about students with disabilities applying for the program.

Jason Rogers, a Chattanooga native and first-year IDEAL student who has Down syndrome, was selected as an intern for the spring 2017 semester.

“Jason went through the same interview process as everyone else,” said Joanna Wagner, program manager for off-campus job development for the IDEAL program. “He worked for the Office of Constituent Services, in the scheduling office primarily. He had a job coach, who was a paid student of Lipscomb University who came and coached him on-site. Jason is from Chattanooga, moved to Nashville and loves everything about the state of Tennessee, so he was the perfect choice for this internship.”

When asked why he wanted to work as an intern with the governor’s office, Rogers shared, “I want to help people within the state of Tennessee.” As an intern, he learned to use Excel spreadsheets, helped with the governor’s schedule, created certificates honoring Tennesseans, and assisted with delivering items throughout the Capitol.

Wagner reflected on her student’s internship experience in Constituent Services: “Jason has completely shined in this role, but this workplace also he realized he is just an employee. The tasks that he has been given are the same tasks that any other intern would be given, and I think that has helped shaped people’s mentalities about the world of disabilities as well.”

Inviting Others: The Department of Economic and Community Development

Given the success of Rogers’ experience, the Council was thrilled when new partners from the Department of Economic and Community Development, Ted Townsend, chief operating officer, and Ann Thompson, director of workforce development, also expressed interest and excitement about the possibility of recruiting interns with disabilities. We worked with ECD to help shape what their agency’s internship position could include. The Council hosted a call with staff from Next Steps and IDEAL, as well as Jeremy Norden-Paul, director of employment and day services at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, to discuss the type of work interns might do at ECD, the hours and structure of the internship, and what flexibility and supports might be required. Luckily, both programs had great candidates who were eager to apply! Within just a few weeks, Lipscomb IDEAL student Brittenee Whitelow and Next Steps at Vanderbilt student Peach Chinratanalab were hired to share an internship position with ECD for this summer.

The partnerships, creativity, problem-solving and quick turnaround times for making both of these internship opportunities possible was a great example of the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” We know a few other state agencies are also interested in creating similar opportunities for interns with disabilities. We’re excited to continue working with our partners at state agencies, postsecondary education programs and others to keep the momentum going!

Celebrating Interns with Disabilities in State Government

In April, Jason Rogers was recognized by Tennessee’s House of Representatives with a joint resolution honoring his service as an intern with the governor’s office. The resolution was sponsored by Rogers’ hometown Chattanooga legislator, Rep. Marc Gravitt and Gravitt’s staffer Chance Von Dette.

Though Peach Chinratanalab and Brittenee Whitelow are just getting started with their internship at ECD, they recently had the opportunity to attend a bill signing with Gov. Haslam for legislation expanding opportunities for business owners who have disabilities. This bill, passed during this year’s legislative session and sponsored by Rep. Martin Daniel and Sen. Becky Massey, adds “business owners with disabilities” as a group eligible for technical assistance and preference for state contracts though the state’s existing business diversity program, the “Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise” (Go-DBE). (More on this next week!)

Photo 1: Lynette Porter and Wanda Willis join Jason Rogers at his desk in the Office of Constituent Services. This photo was provided by Lipscomb IDEAL.

Photo 2: Brittenee Whitelow and Peach Chinratanalab at the Department of Economic and Community Development

Portions of this article will appear in the Council’s upcoming issue of our magazine “Breaking Ground”; quotes from Lipscomb staff and students are taken from an article that originally appeared on the Lipscomb University website and was authored by Lacey Klotz, Lipscomb University public relations specialist.

Contact the DD Council to subscribe to our free Breaking Ground magazine and email newsletters, which both share important information about issues impacting individuals with disabilities and their families in Tennessee, by emailing with your email/ mailing address, or call us at 615-532-6615. We also share lots of info on social media, so follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Share this Post