Case study: From workshops to workforce in Tennessee

What happens when you close sheltered workshops and move people with developmental disabilities into the community workforce? The prospect of this monumental task can seem daunting, even impossible, for many organizations.

When SRVS (pronounced “serves”) took an opportunity to transition people to integrated employment in Shelby County, Tennessee, some were skeptical and others pushed back against the proposal. So they started implementing strategies to focus on “soft skills” such as resume writing and navigating a professional environment.

“Our workshop was our face in the community,” said Tyler Hampton, SRVS’ Executive Director. “Everybody loved us. People were happy. When you walked through people would hug you.”

Eric Ryan, one of the people who left SVRS for community employment.
Eric Ryan, one of the people who left SVRS for community employment. Watch the video from Tennessee Works here.

So when Tennessee state leaders asked him to apply for technical assistance funded through the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP), Hampton said “no” because he knew it would mean closing the workshop. After a second call from the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, SRVS committed to assisting 20 beneficiaries transition to integrated employment in the fall of 2012.

SRVS began receiving technical assistance from subject matter experts in early 2013. During a presentation at SRVS on customized employment, a technical expert described the benefits of working in the community for people with disabilities, including the opportunity to develop friendships and natural supports in ways that would be more realistic than in workshops. Another technical expert with experience in transforming sheltered workshops led a walk-through of the SRVS workshop.

These experiences opened Hampton’s eyes to what he characterized as “the inequities that were happening within our workshop.” “I didn’t realize it,” he added, “I knew we had to close.”

In August 2013 the SRVS board formally agreed to close the sheltered workshop and on June 30, 2015, after more than 50 years, the workshop closed. Of the 110 beneficiaries who had participated in the workshop, 42 are now successfully employed and 62 are receiving supports as they seek employment.

Story adapted and includes parts of an article originally posted on an Administration for Community Living (ACL) blog, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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