Stepping into employment: Students with disabilities learn more about entering the workforce

Employment Summit 2017 participants. Photo by Kyle Jonas.

The Fifth Annual TennesseeWorks Think Employment! Summit brought together students with disabilities, family members, employers, service providers, and partners in State government for a 1-day conference focused on expanding employment opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities. The Summit was held Sept. 21 at Nashville’s Music City Center.

In addition to keynote speeches from professionals active in the self-advocacy movement and with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment (ODEP), the Summit’s programming was organized in two separate tracks: Transforming the Employment Landscape, a track that provided an informative look at the latest in employment services and policies on both a national and state level; and Stepping into Employment, a track for high school and college students with disabilities, which offered an interactive and practical guide to navigating the transition into employment and independence.

The student track is a unique feature of the Summit each year. The 2017 Summit provided ample opportunities for more than 70 students from four school systems and two inclusive higher education programs to work on interview skills, resumé development, networking, career awareness, and self-advocacy.

Student Track Sessions

The sessions designated for students included discussions about everything from human rights to supported decision-making. Session facilitators were from the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) and Vanderbilt University. Students from the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program took part, and they were tasked with documenting some of what they learned from the sessions they attended. See the learning opportunities that the Summit provided and student responses to the sessions outlined below. (All the comments below are by Next Steps at Vanderbilt students.)

Your Rights- Part 1: What Are Human Rights?

This session, presented by Sandy Honeycutt (DIDD), included a presentation on everyone’s human rights. Different types of rights and the importance of exercising them were discussed. Students received information on supported decision-making, power of attorney, and conservatorship. A second session on the topic of rights helped students identify which rights are most important to them and provided tips and strategies for advocating for those rights.

“I learned about speaking up for myself. This was my favorite part.” ~Clark Rice

What Is a Meaningful Day?

This session’s discussion, led by Tony Pena (DIDD), helped to define the concept of a meaningful day as an individualized approach to providing each individual a full life: with choices, respect, competence, purpose, and community. The Personal Outcome Measures discussed were offered as a way to assist in learning which goals are important to an individual, how that individual defines relationships with others, and how to create meaningful days that will lead to positive, meaningful lives.

“I learned that I am a hard worker.” ~Elise Harren

“I learned to speak up.” ~Andrew Lloyd

“I learned about independence.” ~Rochelle Berry

The Perfect Pitch

Jenn Bumble (Vanderbilt University) facilitated a session that helped students develop a 90-second introduction to use at job fairs and interviews.

“I learned how to talk about myself to get a job.” ~Clark Rice

“I learned about using the elevator speech to share my strengths and goals.” ~Elise Harren

“I learned how to talk to them [employers].” ~Devon Sinclair

Employer Mingle. Photo by Kyle Jonas.

Employer Mingle. Photo by Kyle Jonas.

Employer Mingle

During this session, the students were given an opportunity to interact with some of the best employers in Tennessee and use some of what they learned from the day’s sessions. Using a handout in the program as a guide, students approached employers at the tables throughout the meeting space and were encouraged to ask questions to learn more about their business, and to share their resumés and elevator speeches.

“I learned about different kinds of jobs. I met people doing different kinds of jobs.” ~Chloe Young

“I learned to share my strengths and goals. I learned about being positive when working on a job interview.” ~Daniel Brawner

The Think Employment! Summit is 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. The Summit was co-sponsored with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and Supporting Families in Tennessee.

For more information on TennesseeWorks, visit

For more information on the Think Employment! Summit, visit

Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communications and Dissemination.

Pictured top of page: Elise Harren, Clark Rice, Devon Sinclair, and Megan Snoddy (Next Steps at Vanderbilt students) and Chandler King (Senior Talent Acquisition Consultant, HR, VUMC) at the Think Employment! Summit. Photo by Kyle Jonas.

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