Think Employment Summit focuses on raising expectations, opportunities, and self-advocacy




The TennesseeWorks Think Employment Summit brought together over 200 students with disabilities, family members, employers, service providers, and partners in state government to focus on improving employment outcomes for youth and young adults with disabilities.

When Margaret-Lee Thompson’s son Dan was born with Down syndrome in the late 1960’s, societal expectations of his potential to flourish were bleak. Like so many at the time, Thompson was advised by their family physician that her son should be institutionalized. After visiting one and deciding that was not a life she would give her son, Thompson began a life of advocacy and maintained high expectations for her son that would eventually lead him to a 14-year position at Microsoft and her to become an Office of Disability Employment Policy Subject Matter Expert as part of the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program.

Thompson shared her parent advocacy story at the TennesseeWorks Think Employment Summit on September 17, which was attended by over 200 students with disabilities, family members, employers, service providers, and partners in state government. With the goal of sharing best practices and building community partnerships in order to improve employment outcomes for Tennesseans with disabilities, the summit pulled together an impressive lineup of speakers that included Thompson, as well as keynote speakers Paul Wehman, Ph.D., who helped to pioneer the development of supported employment at Virginia Commonwealth University in the early 1980s, and Fiona Hawks, a dynamic and highly independent self-advocate who has been employed full-time for 14 years. Additional featured speakers included Rossina Gil, a Leadership & Organization Development Practitioner, and Stephen Hall, Ph.D., the director of Employment Policy and Research with Griffin-Hammis Associates.

“We know employment delivers,” said Hall to attendees of a breakout session focused on how families can impact public policy decisions. “It is absolutely the case that having a meaningful job not only delivers money (a living wage), but also opens doors to having friends, a longer life, a tendency toward happiness over loneliness, and good health. We know this, yet each year over 54 billion dollars is spent on disabilities, with 98.5% of that sum going to something other than employment initiatives. We need to repurpose our monies, move away from a provider-centered system, and put choices back in the hands of the individual receiving support.”

Hall’s session was a part of the Community Track of the summit, with programming focused for an audience of families, professionals, civic leaders, employers, and self-advocates. Additional tracks provided programming for over 100 students from three local high school transition programs and all four of Tennessee’s postsecondary education programs. The youth were welcomed to the summit by Josh Stanley from the Tennessee Department of Education.

The topics of the student tracks ranged from the history of the disability movement to understanding how benefits impact work. In addition to attending sessions, students were able to network with area employers, discussing their career interests and developing skills for future job interviews.

Additional program highlights included a panel discussion moderated by Amy Gonzalez from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities that focused on Tennessee providers who are transforming their organization’s vision from sheltered workshops to competitive, integrated employment. Also presenting was Vocational Rehabilitation director Yovancha Lewis-Brown, who spoke about new initiatives within the Department to help youth with disabilities in Tennessee move toward competitive employment.

While the day was packed with dynamic presentations and exciting discussion, it was the presence of the students that brought home the true message of the day in a powerful way for all participants. Hardin Manhein, a current Next Steps at Vanderbilt student and member of the Youth Action Council on Transition (YouthACT), not only opened the Summit with a warm welcome, but also closed it by sharing what he had learned throughout the day.

“I was prepared to be challenged, educated, and inspired,” said Manhein. “I learned good information about how to get a job. I enjoyed networking with other students. Also, I learned about resources such as benefits planning. It was a great day for learning.”

The day would not have been possible without a network of community partnerships. Susie Borque, from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, put it well when she closed the day likening the collaboration to a puzzle; with all of the pieces coming together to form a bigger picture.

“It was incredible to see so many people gathered together who care so deeply about transforming the employment landscape for Tennesseans with disabilities,” said TennesseeWorks co-director Erik Carter. “With the strong support of our Governor, state agencies, numerous disability and community organizations, educators, families, and so many young people with disabilities, we are clearly on the cusp of real change in our state. Tennessee is primed to put people with disabilities to work in great jobs for real pay.”

The summit was sponsored by the TennesseeWorks partnership, with administrative leadership from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. TennesseeWorks is supported by a Project of National Significance: Partnerships in Employment Systems Change grant from the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Generous contributions were provided by the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and its Employment First Grant from the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. Jennifer Rowan, an educational consultant for TennesseeWorks, served as the conference planner and provided participants with a well-run and engaging day.

Information and presentations from the TennesseeWorks Think Employment Summit can be found at:

Pictured above: (top) Keynote speaker Paul Wehman and Erik Carter, TennesseeWorks lead researcher (middle) Students visited with employers and learned about community resources (bottom) Interns from Project Search at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt

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