The State of Disability Employment in Tennessee

Disability, Money, and Work Symbols Over Blue Background

                                                                                                                                          The State of Disability Employment
   Having a career is an important part of life. It provides a source of income, satisfaction and independence. Unfortunately for many people with disabilities systemic and societal roadblocks continue to present challenges to finding meaningful work. 
   To break down these roadblocks, we need to improve efforts in areas such as increasing post-secondary and career training for people with disabilities on the front end. As employers, we also need to raise awareness for hiring people with disabilities. This includes educating our employees on the many contributions, both cultural and financial, that this population can bring to the workplace.

In America

   Across the nation, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that for individuals in the labor force (people 16 years and older), employment participation shows a profound gap of 47% between those with and without disabilities (ODEP, 2018). This number also ranges substantially, with some states showing an employment rate as high as 54% in North Dakota and as low as 27% in West Virginia for people with disabilities (University of New Hampshire, 2017). The figure below represents the wide ranges in employment for people with disabilities across the nation. (Fortune, 2017)

   Unemployment rates also double among people with disabilities versus those without, even when accounting for all education levels (U.S. Department of Labor, 2018). Wages are negatively affected for people with disabilities throughout the U.S. Our population is making only about two-thirds of the median earnings of those without disabilities. This disparity results in an over $10,000 loss in annual wages. A poverty gap of between seven to eight percentage points exists between those with and without disabilities. (University of New Hampshire, 2017) 

In Tennessee

   As Tennesseans, we rank as 44th in the nation (as of 2016) for the employment rate for workers with disabilities. This leaves us at only 30.4% employment for people with disabilities, resulting in one of the largest employment gaps between workers with and without disabilities in the nation (Fortune, 2016). We know that low employment runs hand in hand with less financial stability and independence, often times greater poverty, and fewer opportunities for housing. We know that satisfaction, pride, and emotional well-being may also decrease as a result. 

   In 2016, annual earnings by Tennesseans with disabilities were above the national average, making 72% of the median annual earnings of those without disabilities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). Although this number demonstrates disparity, it is an improvement over other states. 

In Progress

   As a nation, we still have work to do when it comes to the state of disability employment. Numerous officials around the country have conducted detailed studies in order to identify the issues surrounding disability employment. Delaware Governor John Carney and the Council of State Governments designed the Work Matters framework for state workforce development for people with disabilities. A few of their recommendations include disability employment as part of every state’s workforce development strategy, as well as finding and supporting businesses who are hiring workers with disabilities. They also advise state governments to act as model employers by increasing their own number of employees with disabilities, and to assist in measures that provide career training to young people with disabilities (Fortune, 2017).

   The Tennessee Disability Coalition, alongside many of our partner organizations, has worked to identify barriers to employment for people with disabilities, as well as to examine how public policy must work to support increased employment and competitive wages. Key areas of improvement include:
•    increasing opportunities for youth in transition, such as in post-secondary education, as well as job advancement and career development
•    fair wages
•    increasing the ability for Tennesseans with disabilities to own businesses and be self-employed

   In addition, we cannot forget that many people with disabilities must balance working to increase their earnings and assets, while simultaneously managing the risk of losing essential public benefits.

   Furthermore, there remains room for growth in emphasizing work training and service systems, such as those of the “Employment First” model. This model, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Labor, encourages community-based, integrated employment as a fundamental goal for individuals with disabilities. The Employment First framework is one example of a systems change effort that has become a critical priority in our state and nation. This model is based on the foundation that all citizens are fully capable of partaking in employment and community life (U.S. Department of Labor, 2018). 

   In June 2013, Governor Bill Haslam signed Executive Order No. 28, adding Tennessee as an Employment First state and creating the Tennessee Employment First Task Force (HYPERLINK). The force combines members across our community including self-advocates and families, state agencies and advocacy organizations working together to increase both integrated and competitive employment for those with disabilities in the state. (Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2017). 

Looking Forward

    Along with models like Employment First, we also continue to push forward as a state and as an organization to improve the state of disability employment in Tennessee. Other models that are beginning to make way in our state include One-Stop Shop Centers and an increased emphasis on Memorandums of Understanding, both of which are intended to simplify and coordinate the often lengthy and confusing hoops Tennesseans with disabilities need to jump through to access services and information. Another recent program is the Bureau of TennCare’s Employment and Community First CHOICES, which gears itself towards increasing options and assistance for employment, as well as helping individuals achieve independent and community-based living.The 2017 Expect Employment Report to Governor Haslam shows the positive impact of these programs. 

   Although we have made leaps as a state towards improving employment options for Tennesseans with disabilities, we must continue to work together. This includes supporting equal employment opportunities for the more than half-a-million working-age adults with disabilities who CAN work and WANT to work throughout Tennessee. 


U.S. Department of Labor 
University of New Hampshire – Institute on Disability/UCED
U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder
TN Council on Developmental Disabilities