“Every person, regardless of ability, has valuable strengths, infinite capacity to learn and the potential to make important contributions to their local communities,” Gov. Lee said in a statement released earlier this month. He went on to call attention to the “value of employees with disabilities to the state’s current and future workforce” as well as his state’s efforts at “expanding employment opportunities for citizens with disabilities.”
This proclamation follows a year of solid job growth for people with disabilities in the Volunteer State. 4,679 Tennesseans with disabilities entered the workforce last year, part of a national trend of jobs gained among people with disabilities.
In 2018, 179,049 Tennesseans with disabilities had jobs, putting that state’s disability employment rate at 33.3 percent. According to the Institute on Disability, that is below the national disability employment rate of only 37 percent. That total includes people who are blind or deaf or have other visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, as well as people with invisible disabilities including learning disabilities, mental health or Autism.
An annual celebration, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is dedicated to raising awareness about disability employment issues and celebrating the incredible contributions of people with disabilities. According to RespectAbility, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works to fight stigmas and advance opportunities so that people with disabilities can participate fully in society, Tennessee ranks 44th in the nation on jobs for people with disabilities.
Tennessee can greatly improve by doing the right things and investing in cost-effective solutions. These differences are the results of deliberate strategies implemented by leaders in the community, in government and in the school system. Employment First is one such strategy. It is a strategy where critical social programs are oriented towards ensuring that getting a job is the top priority for individuals with disabilities. That goal is reinforced with high expectations among the teachers, coaches and parents.
Tennessee can further capitalize on past successes by following the example of states that show constant improvement such as Florida and Ohio. Both can attribute a portion of their growth in disability employment to Project SEARCH, a program for young adults with disabilities to improve their skills, learn from job coaches and ultimately find a job. Data shows that 70 percent of SEARCH interns who complete their training obtain competitive employment. By expanding such critical programs, Tennessee can greatly increase the number of people with disabilities entering the workforce.
Crucial to Tennessee’s efforts to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities is the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. The Council, which helps to advocate for inclusive policies and coordinates advocacy activities, has received national recognition for their efforts. Likewise, the Council has closely coordinated with the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development to services and expand employment. In 2017, the Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips wrote, “Tennesseans with disabilities have been underrepresented in the workforce, but they have real job skills and positive attributes to offer to employers.” He went on to add, “Tennessee is more focused than ever before on preparing students with disabilities leaving high school with the work experience and soft skills employers look for in potential employees.”
Companies that embrace employees with disabilities clearly see the results in their bottom line. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns and create larger returns on investment.
The fact is that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because all of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. Achieving that requires all of us working together because people with disabilities are the right talent, right now.