Students Living with Disabilities in Tennessee Participate in Paid Internship Program

For Fernada Aguilar, finding an internship opportunity that was catered for her abilities and needs was always a challenge. As someone who was living with a disability, the workforce seemed to narrow when it came to all-inclusive options for paid employment.

To address this gap, UnitedHealthcare, in collaboration with the Williamson County Board of Education’s High School Transition Program, launched UnitedHealthcare Pathways, the state’s first paid internship program for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD).

Fernada, a Brentwood High School student, was one of two interns chosen to be part of the pilot program, which launched in spring 2019. She was hired to work with UnitedHealthcare’s Case Management Associates (CMA) team on a variety of customized work assignments.

“It is rare for people with special needs, like me, to find opportunities like this,” she said. “This internship has proven that I am capable of conquering new skills. I feel accomplished after these two months and am very proud of how far I have come compared to when I started.“

Nationwide, individuals living with disabilities are far less likely to have jobs than those living without a disability.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability ages 16 and older was 7.9 percent, more than twice the unemployment rate (3.7 percent) of those with no disability.

To address these challenges, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee’s mission was to create a collaborative learning opportunity where high school students with I/DD are compensated while building employable and marketable work skills.

“We see these challenges first-hand through our members in the Employment and Community First CHOICES program,” said Tonya Copeland, vice president of intellectual and/or developmental disability (I/DD) services, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee. “The program supports integrated, competitive employment and independent living for people who have intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.”

In the weeks leading up to their start date, the interns participated in pre-employment assessments and screenings, completing the application process, interviews and orientation meetings. To encourage successful integration and provide guidance, each intern was assigned to a CMA mentor, who was tasked with helping them strengthen and grow their professional skills for future employment opportunities.

During their time at UnitedHealthcare, the interns gained valuable work experience through a variety of different assignments. The work included assisting UnitedHealthcare members over the phone and supporting UnitedHealthcare employees with their daily activities. They were also able to improve their professional communication skills by attending department meetings, sending emails and navigating the different communication platforms.

“I really feel like I’ve grown as a person,” said Jack Steinkamp, another Pathways intern. “I have gained skills in written and verbal communication, problem solving and e-mail management. All of these assets I have gained will help me to be successful as an independent adult and employee.

The eight-week internship concluded with exit interviews as the interns were able to reflect on their experiences and provide feedback. They also used this time to update their resumes for future job applications. 

“The program’s success has exceeded our expectations,” said John Camperlino, statewide employment manager at UnitedHealthcare. “The interns experienced a tremendous amount of growth and the collaboration between all parties involved has established a firm foundation for future program enhancements.”