Four UCEDDs (TN, TX, MN, KY) Collaborate to Put Faith and Jobseekers with Disabilities to Work

January 9, 2017

A new manual outlines how faith communities can support members with disabilities in finding and maintaining employment. The manual was spearheaded by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (TN UCEDD) and its partners at the Human Development Institute (KY UCEDD), the Texas Center for Disability Studies (TX UCEDD), and the Institute on Community Integration (MN UCEDD). All four UCEDDs facilitated the two-year Putting Faith to Work project as an activity of the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability.

It is important for people in the congregation to help people find jobs because everybody deserves to work if they want to whether they have special needs or not. Everybody has strengths and things they are good at, even individuals with special needs." - PFTW Job Seeker

Putting Faith to Work (PFTW) is an innovative approach that addresses a critical need. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double that of people without disabilities. According to 2014 statistics from the Department of Labor, only 19.1% of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, versus 68.3% of people without disabilities.

"There have been many public and private sector initiatives focused on improving employment rates for individuals with disabilities," said Erik Carter, Ph.D., professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and principal investigator on the Putting Faith to Work grant. "Yet, despite these efforts, overall employment rates have remained virtually unchanged. The unpredictability or lack of funding, limited programs, complicated eligibility requirements, long waiting lists, and myriad other factors all highlight the need for pursuing new avenues and new partnerships if we are going to change the employment landscape."

There are more than 335,000 churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship nationally, so it made perfect sense for Carter and his colleagues to apply for a Signature Employment Grant through the Kessler Foundation to partner with faith communities in an effort to improve employment outcomes.
"The Putting Faith to Work model is actually engaging what ends up being among the most extensive networks of employers in any community," said Carter. "The average congregation has 186 attenders who themselves are connected to a number of different employment sectors. The model recognizes most jobs are obtained through personal connections, including jobs traditional job developers are unlikely to know about. And the model also engages faith community members who already have a vested interest in an individual and affirms the call of scriptural traditions that individuals use their gifts in service and that communities recognize the dignity of work."

Carter and partners in Texas, Minnesota, and Kentucky were awarded the Kessler Foundation grant in January 2014. Administered through the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Tennessee, the model was implemented over the course of 2 years. Teams at each of the four sites provided support, coaching, and encouragement to 25 diverse congregations who collectively have connected more than 50 individuals with jobs.

The model is outlined in the new replication manual, Putting Faith to Work: A Guide for Congregations and Communities. The manual provides step-by-step instructions for gathering a team, holding person-centered conversations to assess strengths and skills, and reaching out through the members of the congregation and beyond to find an employer in the community who needs exactly those strengths and skills in their workplace.

"Faith communities have a wonderful opportunity to enhance the lives of people with disabilities, their families, and their communities by helping people find meaningful jobs, assume valued roles, and share their talents with others," said Bill Gaventa, chair of the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability and a member of the Texas PFTW team. "The manual is a product of 2 years of important work that will encourage a unique way to support people well in all aspects of life-spiritually, relationally, and vocationally."

For more information on Putting Faith to Work, visit