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Making Connections

As Executive Director Dr. Kathy Sheppard-Jones tells it, 2023 was a year of connections for the Human Development Institute.

Connections, according to Sheppard-Jones, are a key aspect of how we do our work – one that can extend beyond the needs of individual projects. “Grants end. Leaders will come and leaders will go. If we make connections across people, across organizations and across efforts, we will endure and we will continue to build on what has been accomplished. That is particularly important for an organization like ours,” Sheppard-Jones said. “We want to innovate. We do not want to make silos full of re-invented wheels. We are doing important work. We will continue to do so. That takes all of us and a spirit of collaboration, knowing that we are all very different and that is our strength in building inclusive communities, addressing inequities, and improving lives of all people who experience disability across the lifespan.”

Throughout the year, HDI worked hard to forge new connections, strengthen old ones, and ensure those connections help it work towards its mission. One of the most exciting new connections this year was with the state and its Olmstead planning activities. “Many of us are familiar with the Olmstead decision in 1999. It found that unjustified segregation of People with Disabilities was discriminatory and violated the ADA. This was a landmark case,” Sheppard-Jones said. “HDI participated in developing Kentucky’s first Olmstead Compliance Plan in 2002. HDI will again have a leadership role in the next Plan, in partnership with people with disabilities, family members, state agencies and community partners. That connection will help ensure that Kentuckians with disabilities have choices and agency when it comes to community-based services, long-term care options, housing opportunities and employment.

HDI also built up its connection to the University of Kentucky, furthering its work with the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Counselor Education. With this alliance, HDI launched the College and Career Studies program during the 2022-2023 academic year. It also worked with the university to establish a Disability Employee Affinity Group. “This is especially exciting because it is a new offering of the University. I am hopeful that it will be an avenue to help change the dialogue about disability and increase pride and sense of belonging for staff and faculty,” Sheppard-Jones said. “It is also a next step toward gathering data about disability in higher education. Conducting research and educating students is part of our charge at HDI and how wonderful it is to recognize our own University as leading the way building a workforce that is inclusive of disability. This can be an exemplary connection that we can amplify together.”

Outside of the University community, HDI worked alongside the Chamber of Commerce to hold the inaugural Inclusive Workforce Summit, creating new connections with professionals across the state, especially in the healthcare and employment fields.

“With over 250 registrants, attendees at this event last September connected with each other to consider how we can all improve opportunities for a highly underutilized segment of the talent pipeline – people with disabilities,” Sheppard-Jones said. “It was an incredible day, with connections to resources, to new ideas, and to new people who are committed to continuing the conversations in the days ahead.”

But connections are not just between organizations – they are also between people, and HDI values meaningful connections between its employees as well, engaging in intentional efforts towards fostering friendships among coworkers and an inclusive workplace. “Everyone works for different reasons, and we all have different interests and motivation. In recognition of this, we try to provide many different ways for people to connect with each other. This can be through our own seminars, trainings, office hours and events – thank you to Kristen Dahl and Dr. Nicholas Wright for your ongoing amazing offerings; or it can happen through connecting our staff to other activities UK offers that may be of interest,” Sheppard-Jones said. “How lucky are we to work in an environment that nurtures so many different learning opportunities?”

And it goes beyond learning opportunities that one would traditionally associate with a university. “It is also UK Health and Wellness ongoing events, finding a self-paced training on Excel, or going to a concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts. I mentioned the Disability Employee Affinity group, and there are several others as well” Sheppard-Jones said. “There is so much we can experience here, if we are interested.”

Looking to the future, HDI hopes to further its work in the early childhood field. “HDI continues to do powerful early childhood work under the leadership of Mary Howard, Dr. Joanne Rojas, and an incredible team of content coordinators, and regional and community level powerhouses. Early childhood efforts are connected to workforce, families, and communities in many ways,” Sheppard-Jones said. “I want to help strengthen our early childhood connections to workforce and employment and build awareness and opportunity for career exploration for children with disabilities and developmental delays at the earliest ages. It is never too late, but it’s never too early to start making connections. And we must do this if we want to improve outcomes as children grow up!”

Sheppard-Jones is also thrilled about future connections that are already planned.

“I’m also really excited about some plans that are in store from our Research and Evaluation Committee,” she said. “That group is going to expand to include faculty from across the University. This will bolster connections for new research, expand our audience for training, and broaden outreach to students. All these efforts increase awareness of HDI at UK. We do not want to be a well-kept secret!”

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Sheppard-Jones receives 2021 APSE Award

The University of Kentucky Human Development Institute – HDI congratulates Executive Director, Dr. Kathy Sheppard-Jones, recipient of the Kentucky APSE Willie Byrd Legislative Award 2021. This award is given to a person who has supported & promoted the employment of people with significant disabilities through legislation and/or legislative & policy efforts.

Dr. Kathy Sheppard-Jones, PhD, CRC, has worked in the field of rehabilitation for the past 25 years, with an emphasis on systems change and community building through participant and data drivers. She leads 275 staff working on projects around inclusion with an emphasis of people with disabilities, is the Lead Administrator for Employment First in Kentucky, and collaborates with state agencies, employers, and communities. Dr. Sheppard-Jones also serves on the University of Kentucky Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Team and teaches in the UK College of Education.

Photo of Mineral Industries Building with UK blue overlay and UK HDI logo in white

HDI Receives Notice of Awards

The University of Kentucky Human Development Institute (HDI) received notice of award of a five-year grant from the Administration for Community Living to better serve Kentuckians who experience co-occurring mental health and intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Kentucky Mental Health, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (KY-MHIDD) Training Initiative will let us hone our work from the National Training Initiative that was co-lead with Utah State and Alaska. The goal is to increase understanding and improve implementation of person-centered, culturally relevant services and referral systems. Existing supports will be strengthened and integrated, addressing racial, health (including COVID-19 pandemic), and economic inequities in underserved communities. This is a partnership grant that includes people with disabilities, family members, state agencies, organizations and other stakeholders. Kristen Dahl, Dr. Chithra Adams and Dr. Kathy Sheppard-Jones will represent HDI in this important work.

The HDI is also working with the Child Neurology Foundation to review the materials they provide to help families and youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities navigate the transition from pediatric to adult healthcare system. Laura Butler, Bev Harp and contractors with HDI will review print and web-based content to identify accessibility issues and potentially ableist language or images. HDI will also conduct a training for Child Neurology Foundation staff and provide a resource guide for the development of new materials.

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RETAIN Kentucky Partners With UK to Expand Service Area

When individuals leave the labor force because they become sick or have a non-work-related injury, it can be detrimental for them, their families, employers and the economy. Workers experience adverse effects on their health, family finances and quality of life. Employers lose valuable talent, productivity and incur the expense of recruiting and retraining staff. Research shows that many of these injured or ill workers could remain in their jobs or the workforce with timely and effective help.

The University of Kentucky Human Development Institute (HDI) and committed project partners are bringing return to work and stay at work early intervention strategies to faculty, staff and student employees at UK. This collaborative effort, RETAIN Kentucky, supports employees who have had a non-work-related injury or illness that puts them at risk of leaving the workforce. These services enhance and build upon on the comprehensive health and wellness program provided to university employees and support a diverse and inclusive workforce.

 “We know all too well that injuries and illnesses can change a person’s life in an instant. RETAIN Kentucky lets us highlight proven strategies that can help keep people working,” says Kathy Sheppard-Jones, principal investigator for UK’s RETAIN program and executive director of the HDI. “The resources of RETAIN can help support UK employees and keep our flagship forging ahead at full power.”

Kim Wilson, vice president and chief human resources officer for UK agrees. “We are excited to partner on the RETAIN initiative, which will benefit both injured and ill workers in our community as well as our institution. We’re grateful to have HDI within our UK community.”

RETAIN Kentucky coordinators provide support and assistance including resource referral and health care navigation, community referral services to support basic needs, vocational counseling, assistive technology assessments and peer support. Services can be delivered face-to-face or remotely through telephone and virtual meetings.

If you are an employee who may benefit from these services or a health care provider who wants to help your patients, call 859-562-3251 or email

RETAIN Kentucky services are also available for employers throughout Central Kentucky. Employers who are interested in learning additional strategies that build an inclusive and diverse workforce can call Shirley Kron, RETAIN Kentucky director of outreach and engagement, at 502-541-5314 or email

RETAIN Kentucky is funded by the United States Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy in the amount of $3.5 million under Cooperative Agreement No. OD-32548-18-75-4-21. This document does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.

Jason Jones Staff Photo

HDI staff receive the Tom Gravitt Advocacy Award

Jason Jones, Disability Specialist, and Dr. Kathy Sheppard-Jones, Executive Director, have received the 2020 Tom Gravitt Advocacy Award from the Kentucky Congress on Spinal Cord Injury (SCI).

This award recognizes individuals who have had an exemplary impact on the SCI community and the disability community at large. These individuals enrich the lives of people with disabilities by being an advocate who fosters respect, access, and equal opportunities for all.

The award is named after Tom Gravitt, who obtained a SCI in his early twenties and fought tirelessly for almost 50 years as an advocate for all people with disabilities. This year’s recipients join previous Tom Gravitt Advocacy Award winners including Beth Bryant (2016), David Allgood (2017), Richard Moloney (2018), and Sasha Rabchevsky (2019).