Tennessee Employment Pathways Project Enrolling Families for Summer Sessions

/ April 19, 2022

By Emily Lanchak

Like anyone else, youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities want to participate and engage with their community. An inclusive community is one where everyone is welcomed, valued, and able to contribute meaningfully. Although there are many avenues for community inclusion, finding a good job is among the most impactful. A job provides opportunities to develop new skills, share talents, and assist others. Working and meeting new people will expand personal and professional networks. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy earning money? A regular paycheck fosters independence by providing means for meeting personal needs such as food, housing, transportation, and entertainment.

In a recent statewide survey, more than 3,000 Tennesseans shared the experiences they value most. When asked about employment, 88% of individuals with disabilities and 86% of parents rated finding or keeping a job as important. The value of work was reinforced in focus groups we held with parents of adults with IDD. For example, the father of a 22-year-old with autism described the impact of work saying, “The more I have thought about it and talked to other people, a lot of the reasons we would want any family member to have employment apply to our son … sense of self, sense of identity, and sense of accomplishment.” I think we can all relate to this quote! Our jobs are often a big part of our lives and contribute to our sense of self.

The benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities extend to employers. Consumer research shows that customers prefer to do business with companies that employ individuals with disabilities and are more likely to do repeat business with companies known to hire people with disabilities. A diverse workplace fosters innovation and creates a culture that benefits both employees and customers. One mother described her son’s work environment explaining, “I have been so surprised of the support because I was wary of him going out into the world on his own. But I was totally unprepared for how supportive the places he has worked have been towards him and his disabilities and the patience they have.”

Similar to this mother’s initial thoughts, some families may be hesitant to pursue work in the community with their loved one. They may wonder if it is possible or doable. They may not know what types of jobs would be a good fit. They may not know where to start or how to connect with employers. That is where we come in! Our project, the Tennessee Employment Pathways Project, helps parents learn how to connect their family member(s) with IDD to paid employment. We are not limited to working with parents; any adult who is supporting a family member through the employment process can join. This could include siblings, grandparents, aunts/uncles, or other loved ones.

There are two ways families can participate. First, we are looking for parents or siblings who have a family member with IDD who is interesting in finding a job. Participants will attend a “short course” that introduces practical steps to help connect family members to work. Some of the course topics include employment options, types of supports, and tips for connecting with employers. A step-by-step resource guide and other planning tools will be shared. Some- but not all – participants will also be matched with an informal mentor.

We are also looking for adults willing to serve as informal mentors. They will support another family just starting on the road to employment. Mentors must have a family member with IDD who has a paid job or was recently employed. More details on each role and compensation can be found on our project’s website.

We piloted this project with a small group of families over the past year. Here is a quote from one of our participants whose son found employment. When asked if she would recommend the experience to other parents, she said, “I would definitely recommend the project! It helps to organize and encourage. Gives you a contact and a resource bank. Along with a group of families that are going through very similar situations.”

Slots remain open for our summer training sessions. You can learn more and sign up at our project website: www.employmentpathways.org. We invite you to share this project with family and friends, and let others know about this exciting opportunity!


My thanks to Emily and her team for this project and her willingness to share information about it. I hope if your son or daughter or sibling with a disability is interested in working, but you are unsure how to help, you will consider joining this research effort. If you have questions, you can always email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Happy reading!

Emily Lanchak headshot

Emily Lanchak, M.Ed, is an educational consultant at Vanderbilt University. Her work centers on supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. She is the project coordinator for the Tennessee Employment Pathways Project and Tennessee Disability Services Study, which aim to increase employment outcomes for adults with IDD and improve the ways Tennesseans find disability resources and programs. She previously worked on the Tennessee Behavior Supports Project, training and supporting school districts in Middle Tennessee, and worked as a special education teacher in Nashville.

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