Think Employment! Summit builds student and community engagement

AOD Commissioner Aaron Bishop and Holiday Inn employee Kevin Burke kicked off the Think Employment! Summit. Photo courtesy of Center for Independent Living of Middle Tennessee.

The 2015 TennesseeWorks Think Employment! Summit brought together more than 280 students with disabilities, family members, employers, service providers, and partners in state government for a 1-day conference, Sept. 16, focused on expanding employment opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities.

This year’s summit is the third annual Employment Summit sponsored by the TennesseeWorks partnership, a systems-change project funded by the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities with administrative leadership from the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

Kevin Burke set the tone for the day during the morning kick-off, bringing the audience to their feet with his stirring remarks. Kevin has been successfully employed at the Holiday Inn at Vanderbilt for over 4 years. He was joined by his employer, Kim Vann, who asked him a series of questions about his employment. Some of Kevin’s advice for student attendees included never being afraid to ask for help, having patience, and believing in yourself. When asked why employment is important for people with disabilities, he responded, “Because it’s our time to shine.”

Aaron Bishop, Commissioner of the Federal Administration on Disabilities, was the keynote speaker. Reflecting on disability employment policy from a national perspective, Bishop emphasized the partnerships that Tennessee agencies and organizations have formed to remove barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Bringing the policy discussion down to a personal level in a powerful way, Bishop directly addressed the students in the room, encouraging several young people to share their career dreams out loud to attendees.

After the kick-off, participants split into two groups. Students from local school districts and two postsecondary education programs attended interactive and hands-on sessions designed to provide them with practical knowledge in building employment skills. Session highlights included “The Perfect Pitch” and “Now Hiring! Self-Advocate and Employer Panel.” Students were able to put these skills into practice with employer and provider vendors who volunteered their time for the day, including Walgreens, Old School Farm, Holiday Inn at Vanderbilt, Best Buddies Jobs, Pepsi ACT, Averitt, Crossroads Campus, and Vocational Rehabilitation.

Other community stakeholders participated in a “Behind the Scenes Action” track, focused on cutting-edge topics in employment services and policies on the national, state, and local level. Bishop presented with Susie Bourque from the Department of Labor on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Other “Behind the Scenes” sessions covered a wide variety of topics, from updates on TennCare’s Employment and Community First Choices to tips on preparing for an interview with Vocational Rehabilitation.

To close out the day, Lauren Bethune and Kyle Jonas of TennesseeWorks got attendees excited about “Hire My Strengths,” a campaign that the TennesseeWorks partnership is launching in October for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The goal of “Hire My Strengths” is to share the diverse strengths that people with disabilities bring to the workplace. During the summit, students wrote their strengths on signs. Their pictures were taken as they held their signs up. These pictures were shared during the closing of the summit and will be disseminated as part of the “Hire My Strengths” campaign during October.

“The people and passion present throughout the day remind us that Tennessee really does have the commitment and capacity to change the employment landscape for young people with disabilities living all across our state,” said TennesseeWorks co-director Erik Carter, Ph.D., professor of special education and VKC member. “We are optimistic about what we can accomplish together.”

Kelly Wendel, educational consultant for TennesseeWorks, served as the conference planner, putting together a dynamic and well-organized conference. Special thanks to many of the TennesseeWorks partners who helped make this day possible, including the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Department of Education, Department of Human Services Division of Rehabilitation Services, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Rachael Jenkins is dissemination program coordinator for TennesseeWorks.

Pictured top of page: AOD Commissioner Aaron Bishop and Holiday Inn employee Kevin Burke kicked off the Think Employment! Summit. Photo courtesy of Center for Independent Living of Middle Tennessee.

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