Employment First meeting outlines vision for upcoming year

By: Rachael Jenkins

On Dec. 2, five officials from Tennessee attended the National Employment First State Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., to reflect on successes and challenges from the previous year, while setting the stage for continued progress in increasing employment outcomes for people with disabilities. The Tennessee team included Amy Gonzalez, State Director of Employment and Day Services with the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities; Wanda Willis, Executive Director at the Council on Developmental Disabilities; Alison Gauld, Behavior & Low Incidence Coordinator at the Department of Education; Sue Karber, Director for Consumer Health and Wellness at the Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services; and Yovancha Lewis-Brown, Vocational Rehabilitation Program Director. Rachael Jenkins from TennesseeWorks joined the group as well.

The meeting provided a forum for states to collaborate with policy advisors, national leaders, and other states in articulating a vision for Employment First efforts for the upcoming fiscal year. Employment First represents the concept that employment should be the first and primary option for all people with disabilities. Serena Lowe, PhD, Senior Policy Advisor with the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) highlighted that 34 states are now a part of the Employment First movement; 20 states, including Tennessee, have an official Employment First policy.

Employment First continues to grow and evolve as exciting new legislation and increased federal attention raises awareness of the importance of employment for people with disabilities. Low expectations have too often prevented people with disabilities from being able to participate meaningfully in their communities. Over the last 18 months, numerous federal policy developments promise widespread changes in employment opportunities and outcomes for people with disabilities. The federal government is sending a clear message that services and supports should enable individuals to live in the community, get a job, enjoy good health, contribute to their community in a meaningful way, and achieve personal potential for independence. See just a few legislative highlights referenced in the meeting below:

Recognizing the complexity of navigating disability systems, the government has committed federal dollars to numerous systems change efforts relevant to Employment First. In 2011, the Office of Disability Employment Policy launched the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP) to assist states in their Employment First efforts through comprehensive technical assistance and training. On November 3rd of this year, Tennessee was again selected to participate as a 2015 Core State in EFSLMP. In Tennessee, the Employment First task force is closely aligned with the TennesseeWorks Partnership. TennesseeWorks is part of another systems change effort, the Partnerships in Employment grants, focused on increasing employment outcomes for youth and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. With all these intersecting systems change efforts, states are collaborating more than ever to formalize structures and tackle barriers in implementing new policies and raising employment expectations for people with disabilities.

The National Employment First State Leadership Meeting outlined components of EFSLMP for fiscal year 2015. As part of EFSLMP, subject matter experts guide states in thinking through how policies and funding are aligned, how to build and sustain the capacity of front-line staff, set provider expectations, and measure progress. At the meeting, Lowe highlighted achievements of the program including 12 policy changes in 4 core states, over 7500 hours of TA from the previous three years, and policy analysis/recommendations for all 15 states. Ongoing dilemmas discussed include sustaining key political champions, holistic wraparound services, dealing with finances, communicating effectively with employers, getting stakeholder buy-in, and building capacity among direct support professionals in effective practices.

During the meeting, Gonzalez presented on Tennessee’s experience with EFSLMP and shared advice with other states. One key point she brought up was to ensure regular communication with state leaders; she cited quarterly meetings Employment First holds in conjunction with TennesseeWorks partnership meetings. Additionally, she advised states to maximize public relations opportunities and use their communications staff to regularly disseminate information to stakeholders about efforts. Tennessee’s Employment First has actually created a video (now a requirement for all states) to help spread the word across the state. Click here to watch the video.

In Fiscal Year 2015, EFSLMP’s Core States will be provided consulting both virtually and on-site from designated Subject Matter Experts. States were able to choose from a variety of core focus areas of technical assistance. Tennessee selected to receive technical assistance in provider transformation, capacity building in effective practices, and partnerships through workforce in implementing Employment First. All 15 Core States will also participate in 4 Vision Quest working groups to receive in-depth, focused technical assistance focusing on rate reimbursement, Medicaid HCBS waivers, partnering with workforce development, and school-to-work transition. States will have access to monthly webinars, informational resources and tools, and be provided multiple opportunities to dialogue with national leaders.

During the day, state teams attended a variety of breakout sessions from the Subject Matter Experts in the different focus areas of capacity building, provider transformation, employer engagement, and school to work transition. Core states then participated in Vision Quest working group breakouts. As part of Vision Quest, Tennessee, along with the other states participating, will have two onsite visits, a minimum of two individual consults per month, and quarterly virtual meetings. Through attending the National Employment First State Leadership Meeting, the Tennessee team was able to collaborate with other states on key successes and challenges, gain an appreciation for the larger national context around the work the state is doing, and ultimately lay the groundwork for continued growth in the upcoming year.

Last Updated: 12/29/2014 1:20:15 PM

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