Research centers established to support individuals with disabilities, their parents as they enter transition age, seek gainful employment

young man working at store

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) researcher Erik Carter, Ph.D., has introduced two new Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers (RRTCs) focusing on supporting youths with disabilities, as well as their parents, as they transition into adulthood and begin to seek employment and adult services.

Elise McMillan, J.D.

Elise McMillan, J.D.

Eric Carter, Ph.D.

Eric Carter, Ph.D.

“This work is very much part of the VKC’s University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD) and its Area of Emphasis on Employment,” said UCEDD director Elise McMillan, J.D. “The RRTCs provide the opportunity for research, training and technical assistance, and information sharing.”

“Many of us know firsthand the impact a good job can have on our lives,” said Carter. “Through our work with TennesseeWorks and Transition Tennessee within the VKC UCEDD, we have also seen so many examples of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) flourishing because of the income, relationships, and sense of purpose that comes from having a job they love. But is also clear that too many Tennesseans with disabilities struggle to connect to these important experiences.”

Statistics show that most youth and young adults with IDD have goals aimed toward community employment, yet integrated employment has still not been adopted in widespread ways. In Tennessee, only 16 percent of working-age adults with IDD are employed. Likewise, the majority of adults with IDD reside with their parents, and only 25 percent access long-term services and supports, making their parents among the most prominent sources of support and guidance.

Yet most parents say they lack the information, guidance, encouragement, and support they need during this period of early adulthood. In a recent study with almost 2,000 parents of Tennesseans with IDD, 57 percent said they were not at all familiar with programs addressing vocational and work options, and 23 percent were only a little familiar.

Headshot of Julie Lounds Taylor

Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D.

Erik Carter will be working closely alongside Elise McMillan and Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D., to facilitate the two training centers.

“We pursued these two projects because we wanted to identify effective ways of connecting more people to the world of work,” said Carter. “Moreover, we wanted to develop approaches that could be used widely across the state and around the country.” 

Employment of Transition-Age Youth with Disabilities

Carter and his team are using this training center to examine the impact of having paid work experiences during high school on the early post-school outcomes of youth with severe disabilities. The end goal is to better understand the impact of employment on students and to develop practical, free resources that can help schools around the country put best practice into actual practice.

In this project, high school students with severe disabilities will be randomly assigned to one of two study groups: (1) those whose school transition program will somehow involve them in paid work using a supported employment approach during their final year of school, and (2) those whose school transition program will address career preparation and exploration in the absence of paid employment.

RRTC staff will support school teams and participants through the program by way of employment-related transition assessment, person-centered planning with family members, individualized job development, on-site support, skills training in the classroom, and other resources.

This spring, Carter and his team held focus groups and an advisory council meeting to continue to finalize the intervention and create needed materials. They are committed to making sure the intervention will be feasible and doable in typical schools.

“We will be recruiting participants in waves over the course of three years,” Carter continued. “We will be partnering with schools, agencies, and disability organizations in Middle Tennessee to ensure we have a strong and diverse sample.”

For more information about this transition training center, visit

Employment of People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

In this first-of-its-kind study, the research team will develop, pilot, refine, and evaluate an intervention package that combines both information-sharing and parent mentorship in ways that will lead significantly more parents to pursue and obtain integrated employment for their son or daughter with IDD.

This spring, the team listened to the stories and recommendations of more than 50 parents through individual interviews and focus groups. They also met with their advisory council to ask for advice on how best to design the intervention so that it is likely to make a noticeable difference in the outcomes of families.

Next fall, they will pilot a first version of the intervention focused on the expectations, knowledge, and goals families have related to integrated employment. Participating families will receive accessible and relevant information about the benefits of integrated employment and the pathway to work. Participants will then be matched to one or more mentors who have personal experience supporting a family member with IDD obtain integrated employment. Mentors will receive training, resources, and ongoing support from the project to equip them to provide encouragement and direction to their parents with whom they partner.

For more information about this employment training center, visit

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.


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