TennesseeWorks, Transition Tennessee, and the UT Center on Literacy, Education and Employment held the first Regional Think Employment! Summit in Knoxville on December 3, 2019. East Tennessee educators, service providers, vocational rehabilitation staff, families, employers, partners in government, and self-advocates focused on best practices and building community partnerships.
Transition Tennessee is a collaboration between the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Tennessee Department of Education, Vocational Rehabilitation, Vanderbilt University’s Department of Special Education, and TennesseeWorks. It is an online “blueprint” for professional development and resources on preparing students with disabilities for life after high school. The program’s team of educational consultants offers online and in-person resources for educators and pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) professionals as they support transition-age youth with disabilities through tasks such as finding meaningful and gainful employment and seeking accommodations to achieve full inclusion within their communities.
Think Employment! is a day full of innovative breakout sessions focused on improving employment outcomes for Tennesseans with disabilities, with a specific focus on transition-age youth. TennesseeWorks and Transition Tennessee held several Think Employment Summits in Nashville, but this was the first summit to be held outside of Middle Tennessee. The theme of this summit was “Transforming the Employment Landscape.” Local hosts included the UT Center on Literacy, Education and Employment, the UT Center on Disabilities, and the Knoxville Area Employment Consortium.
“Our goal has always been to offer regional Think Employment! Summits, and we’re thrilled to get that opportunity now,” said Rachael Jenkins, Transition Tennessee educational consultant. “We know not everyone can make it to Nashville for conferences, and regional events allow us to feature local speakers and partner with local organizations.”
“Knoxville has a very active disability and employment community, particularly with the Knoxville Area Employment Consortium, so we knew it was a great place to launch these regional Summits,” said Jenkins. “UT’s Center for Literacy, Education, & Employment was a great partner in planning this event. They helped us recruit a diverse variety of attendees. We were excited to see the energy and excitement everyone brought to the event.”
Serving as keynote speakers for the Knoxville event were Molly Ridgeway Anderson, Project SEARCH manager at The Access Program, and Susan Arwood and Nick Filarelli from Core Services of Northeast Tennessee. In 2017, Anderson co-authored and successfully lobbied for legislation that allowed American Sign Language to be an accepted foreign language in Tennessee high schools. In 2018, Core Services developed an Enabling Technology test project with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to create a more effective service model that is person-centered and promotes independence.
“People across Tennessee want to help build the capacity of our state to support employment by people with disabilities. These shared summits that highlight both state and local speakers and programs are one way to move that forward,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.
Following the keynote, attendees had two rounds of breakout sessions for educators, pre-ETS providers, and self-advocates and their families. The breakouts covered topics including supported decision-making, self-advocacy in the workplace, and strategy-building.
Attendees voiced their enjoyment of the Think Employment! Summit to event coordinators. One attendee appreciated the keynote speakers’ focus on a successful working adult with a disability. Another wrote, “I was inspired to find more businesses that will provide work opportunities to students before leaving high school so that they will be more likely to work after high school.”
TennesseeWorks, Transition Tennessee, and the UT Center on Disability are planning their next Think Employment! Summit to take place in Memphis on March 30. A Middle Tennessee Summit is planned for Summer 2020.
For more information on the next Think Employment! Summit, visit the Transition Tennessee website.
Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.