Breaking Ground 103 - Changing Minds and Systems with Council Funds

by Council staff

If you’ve heard the Council talk about “systems change,” you might have wondered what that means. What systems are we changing? How? Why?

The Developmental Disabilities Act created councils and gave us this work of creating positive, long-term change in systems that serve people with disabilities. That might be state government services, or other community systems. The change should give people with disabilities more control and access to live the lives they want for themselves.

Our Tennessee Council state plan says we will create this change by:

  • developing leaders,
  • improving policies and practice,
  • and informing stakeholders (that’s people in the disability community).

This year, members of our Council reviewed and approved grants for new projects that support those state plan goals. Keep reading for more about how each of these projects is creating change for people with lifelong disabilities in our state.


Developing Leaders

Disability Arts Access in Rural Tennessee (Partner: Friend’s Life Community)

Friends Life Community, a disability agency, uses the arts (dance, acting, pottery, painting, songwriting, and more) to teach self-advocacy and leadership skills to Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This past year, the Council began funding an expansion of the Advocacy Through the Arts program to allow more adults with disabilities to build confidence and express themselves in new ways.

This new grant will further expand the program, including through videos to share these remarkable works of art with a wider audience. Funding will also support Friend’s Life to create a guide to help other agencies create similar programs. Through this project, art serves as a way for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to share their gifts and voices with the world.

Improving Policies and Practice

The Council has a long history of spurring systems change through training and best practices. That’s the unique role of Councils across the country: we can make long-term, system-wide investments and continue them through partnerships. In the 1990s, the Council started Tennessee’s “Employment First” efforts. In the early 2000s, we invested in the first person-centered practices training. Tennessee now leads the nation in both those topics, thanks to long-term commitments by the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and TennCare.

The Council continues investing in training that will spur systems change.

Here are our investments in 2020:

Mental Health Crisis Training (Partners: Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities)

An estimated 40% of people with intellectual disabilities also have a mental health diagnosis. This means the professionals supporting people with intellectual disabilities often end up responding to mental health crises. To help with those needs, the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) is proposing to launch specially-trained crisis teams across Tennessee. The Council is excited to be partnering with DIDD to provide training by the renowned Center for START Services.

With the Council’s funding, the Center for START Services will help develop five regional crisis teams to serve people with dual diagnosis who get services through the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD). The crisis teams will include specially trained:

  • DIDD staff,
  • first responders,
  • law enforcement,
  • and mental health providers.

With help from the experts at the Center for START Services, the new crisis teams will:

  • Plan crisis intervention and prevention.
  • Develop emergency and planned respite care options.
  • Reach out to people with dual diagnosis and their families.
  • Collect data about the teams’ work.

Person-Centered Training: Transforming Tennessee’s Largest Disability Employment System (Partners: Department of Human Services)

Despite the obvious turmoil of 2020, it is an exciting time for Tennessee’s Division of Rehabilitation Services. The division oversees the state’s largest employment program for people with disabilities, the Vocational Rehabilitation program, or VR.  Under the umbrella of VR, there are several specialized programs:

  • Pre-Employment Transition Services
  • Business Services
  • Tennessee Rehabilitation Center located in Smyrna (TRC Smyrna)
  • Community Tennessee Rehabilitation Centers located in communities across the state
  • Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing Services
  • Blind and Visually Impaired Services

Under the leadership of Commissioner Danielle Barnes and Assistant Commissioner Mandy Johnson, the program is undergoing a complete transformation. The goal is to design everything the division does for a better experience for the customer – the person with a disability.

The Council is excited to support this effort by investing in a year-long, nationally recognized person-centered training for ALL division staff, from front-line counselors to top leadership. Everyone will participate in intensive training with nationally recognized employment consultants Griffin Hammis Associates (GHA). GHA is known nationally as an expert in “customized employment,” which matches a person’s skills and dreams with an employer’s unique business needs. This model rejects the idea that there is any person not capable of meaningful employment.

The division will also work with GHA to review and update policies as needed to embody the person-centered philosophy. The change will embed a strengths-based approach that honors every person’s skills and dreams. Together, these changes will build a positive customer experience in every engagement with the divisions’ programs.

A Tennessee Center for Decision-Making (Partners: The Arc Tennessee and Disability Rights Tennessee)

Decision-making is a key issue for people with disabilities who may need help making and expressing decisions. For example, a person might face barriers communicating or understanding information needed to make a decision. The Council strongly supports the right of ALL people with disabilities to make their own decisions, with any help that is needed. The Council has focused for several years on learning about and sharing tools that protect that right even while a person gets help with decision-making (known as “supported decision-making”). The Council is now taking everything we’ve learned, together with partner organizations, and investing in the state’s first Center for Decision-Making.

The Arc Tennessee will lead the new Center for Decision-Making, which will offer a website with easy-to-understand information about different options to help people make important life decisions. Importantly, the Center’s staff will offer trainings, information and referral, and one-on-one support to people with disabilities and families.

Disability Rights Tennessee will complement the Center’s work with legal services and first-of-its kind research in:

  • Best practices in conservatorship.
  • Data on conservatorships issued in Tennessee.
  • Legal expertise and training in decision-making supports for Tennesseans with disabilities.
  • Legal help for Tennesseans with disabilities who wish to reverse their conservatorships when they are no longer needed.

Informing Stakeholders

First-of-its-kind Upgrade to Tennessee Disability Pathfinder (Partner: Vanderbilt Kennedy Center)

“I am completely overwhelmed trying to find the disability services I need.” We hear this theme often from our community. To address the issue, the Council helped launch and still funds a program that keeps track of all Tennessee’s disability services and helps people navigate them: Tennessee Disability Pathfinder. Pathfinder was launched in 1997 through a partnership between the Council and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. It has connected many thousands of Tennesseans of all ages, types of disabilities, and spoken languages to the disability services and supports they needed. Tennessee is one of the few states in the nation with anything like it.

Now, the Council is investing in a thorough evaluation of Pathfinder to celebrate what is working well and help us know what needs to improve. The evaluation will also help us know how to keep measuring how we’re doing. The evaluation will be led by Dr. Erik Carter, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor in the Department of Special Education. Members of the disability community will be invited to give feedback through focus groups and Pathfinder user surveys.

“We are excited that we get to work with Dr. Erik Carter, who happens to be one of our nation’s premier disability researchers, to capture the incredible value of Pathfinder in Tennessee – and keep improving,” said Wanda Willis, Executive Director of the Council.

“Stronger Together” (Partner: N&R Publications)

Stories help us take in information and shape how we see the world. The Council worked with N&R Publications in 2019 to share our work with rural communities through the personal stories of people with developmental disabilities. The stories were featured in an eight-page newspaper insert that ran in six community newspapers. Two of the stories were developed into hugely popular short videos shared on the Council’s social media feeds. (See "Danny's Story" and "Charlotte's Story" on our YouTube page.)

The new grant will expand this project by running the newspaper insert in many more rural counties across Tennessee. It will also fund two new videos.