TennesseeWorks (Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, TN UCEDD) Hosts Inaugural Employment Summit

October 28, 2013

TennesseeWorks, a program of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (TN UCEDD), hosted the Inaugural Employment Summit & Statewide Community Conversation on Monday, welcoming more than 140 self-advocates, family members, employers, educators, employment professionals, and government officials to the Vanderbilt University campus. With the intention of building capacity and commitment to connecting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to meaningful jobs in Tennessee, the day-long Summit provided a venue through which to learn about national and local efforts, and to generate conversation about increasing employment outcomes.

Keynote speakers were Cesilee Coulson, executive director of the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment, and Robert Nicholas, coordinator of the Knoxville Area Employment Consortium (KAEC) Project SEARCH, and Senior Visiting Fellow for Disability Research at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

Introduced by Jordan Allen, Deputy Commissioner of Program Operations at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Coulson opened the day by challenging participants to "set bold goals" to overcome perceived barriers and to believe in the possibility that Tennesseans with disabilities can be held to the same employment standard as all Tennesseans. Coulson also outlined core strategies that her home state of Washington and neighboring state of Oregon have implemented through the Employment First Leadership Mentor Program.

After an introduction by Vocational Rehabilitation Program Director Yovancha Lewis-Brown, Nicholas focused his presentation on employer-driven initiatives emphasizing the good business sense it makes to hire people with disabilities. Outlining the value people with disabilities bring to the workplace, providing examples of companies leading the way, and profiling the Project SEARCH model, Nicholas made the case for a pressing need for collaborations between service providers and employers to improve employment outcomes in the state.

The afternoon included a Community Conversation, which was an opportunity for attendees to reflect on the resources, supports, relationships, and other assets in the state that could be drawn upon to expand employment opportunities. Groups gathered around tables to discuss the topics of finding and supporting employers, raining family expectations, aiming providers toward competitive employment, strengthening school and transition services, improving community attitudes and partnerships, and preparing youth for work. 

"I was thrilled to see so many people coming together who care deeply about transforming the employment landscape for young people with disabilities in our state," said Vanderbilt Associate Professor of Special Education and TennesseeWorks Principle Investigator Erik Carter. "We all left with a stronger commitment to making competitive employment the first choice in Tennessee, compelling ideas for making it happen, and inspiration from our speakers who reminded us it is possible to make a real impact."

TennesseeWorks is supported by a Project of National Significance grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Community Living (ACL), Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AIDD). For more information, visit www.tennesseeworks.org.