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VUMC Human Resources recognizes Disability Employment Awareness Month with panel discussion


Diversity and inclusion are integral to fulfilling VUMC’s mission, and we take pride in making diversity and inclusion intentional in our employment practices. In honor of Disability Employment Awareness Month, VUMC Human Resources hosted a panel discussion with community experts Ned Andrew Solomon of the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities, Carrie Hobbs Guiden of The Arc Tennessee, Jeremy Norden Paul of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities TN and Lisa Primm of Disability Rights TN. The panel shared some of the barriers individuals with disabilities face when seeking employment and how VUMC can help break down those barriers.

Norden Paul said one of the biggest challenges his agency faces is dispelling the myth that individuals with disabilities are unable or unwilling to work and are too fragile to work. He told the story of a client who wanted to work so he could buy his mother a headstone.

“Everyone has a reason for wanting to work, whether it’s for dignity, for money or for the social aspects of work,” he said. “Only 28 percent of people with disabilities are employed, and more than 70 percent say they want to be employed.”

He added that thanks to Gov. Bill Haslam’s Executive Order 28, Tennessee is a designated employment-first state, which means there is an expectation at the state level that everyone who wants to work should be allowed to work. The executive order also created an employment-first task force to address key employment barriers for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Other challenges include lack of transportation, particularly for rural areas; low wages for administrators of services that make it hard to attract top talent; a belief that people with disabilities should be relegated to the lowest-paying jobs; and misconceptions about the costs associated with employing individuals with disabilities.

The panel also discussed strategies for attracting and retaining employees with disabilities. Primm says her organization practices a “do-ask, do-tell” strategy. 

“Of course you’re not allowed to ask a candidate if they have a disability,” she says, “but you can ask if the candidate would like to identify anything about himself that would help the organization help him be more successful.” 

Panelists said other acceptable questions to ask are “Is there anything you need to better help you do your job?” and “How do you learn best?”

Norden Paul says identifying job roles where employees with disabilities can thrive is the same process as for employees without disabilities.

“You ask the same questions you’d ask of a candidate without disabilities. You hone in on their strengths; ask what they’re good at. Ask what they like to do,” he says. “You also might consider job customization — creating jobs that aren’t found on Indeed but are based on a person’s strengths and will also benefit the organization and allow both the employee and the organization to succeed.”

Investing in employees with disabilities can also be financially beneficial for the organization as there is a significantly lower turnover rate among those employees — a consideration for managers who worry they won’t have time to train individuals with disabilities.

For more information about employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental delays or for more information on best hiring practices, visit the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Arc Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee and the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Other resources include the Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, Project Search and the Job Accommodation Network.

To view a video of the entire panel discussion, click here.