Council E-newsletter Archive

Most recent articles listed first.

September 2022

View original email with photos here.

From the Executive Director's Desk

Readers,

We have some exciting updates for you in this issue, including new Council members! As you’re reading this, we are gathering for our quarterly Council meeting in Nashville. Earlier today, new members attended orientation and our full membership will meet for dinner. Tomorrow we will have our typical business meeting. You can read meeting minutes and find information about visiting Council meetings on our website.

I also want to share that last weekend we launched of our Partners in Policymaking 2022-23 class. After hosting this program virtually for the past several years, it was extra special to be in person and see the connections made among scholars.

Learn more about Partners in Policymaking here.

We want to hear from you as you read these newsletters – let us know what resonates with you.

Wishing everyone a great week,

Lauren

Meet our New Member: Kimberly Boyd, Northwest TN Development District

Kimberly Boyd was recently appointed by Gov. Bill Lee to represent the Northwest Development District on the Council. She has a 12-year-old son, William, who goes by “Ty.” Ty has autism and is the recipient of a kidney transplant. Kimberly works for Amerigroup as the Employment and Community First CHOICES member advocate for the west TN region. She first became involved in the disability community when working as an Independent Support Coordinator in 2007.

Kimberly and Ty live in Martin with their toy poodle, Sophie. Kim's main areas of interest related to disability are increasing access to appropriate public education, support services, and health insurance. Right now, she also serves on councils related to the TARP Center for Independent Living in Paris, TN. She loves decorating, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

Meet our New Member: Sara Miller, Southwest TN Development District

Sara Miller was recently appointed by Gov. Bill Lee to represent the Southwest Development District on the Council. Sara was born Deaf and says she became an active participant in the disability community when she began her teaching career in Deaf Education in 2008. In 2019, Sara founded her business, Language Priority, to design apparel and merchandise focused on ASL (American Sign Language) and the Deaf community. She also teaches online ASL classes.

Sara and her husband, Bryce, live in Jackson with their 2 dogs, one of whom is also deaf. She is passionate about accessibility to information, education, and communication. She shared, “I want to be a part of the change on behalf of the disabled community in Tennessee. I hope to use my lived experiences and those of others to help make changes for the better!”  Sara loves reading, drawing, and creating designs for her business.

Meet our New Member: Bliss Welch, Southeast TN Development District

Bliss Welch was recently appointed by Gov. Bill Lee to represent the Southeast Development District on the Council. Bliss became a self-advocate during her teen years when diagnosed with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy 2B/R2. During her reign as Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee 2013, she said she “developed a greater understanding of the need to advocate for change in policies so individuals with disabilities are viewed and treated as equals in society.”

Bliss and her 10-year-old daughter, Annabelle, live in Harrison, TN. Bliss works as an Accounts Specialist at Island Cove Marina & Resort. For the past decade, she has served as a volunteer for the Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee organization to empower other wheelchair-mobile women to find their voices and advocate. She also serves as the Chairwoman for the “Harvesting Inclusive Play” committee in Chattanooga, a group partnering with the City of Chattanooga and the Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga to raise funds for a universally inclusive playground.

2022-23 Partners in Policymaking Scholars Begin Training

Congratulations to our newest Partners class! 

  • Heather Bensch - Ripley
  • Drake Box - Dyersburg
  • Becca Brnik - Cleveland
  • Garrison Buchanan - Johnson City
  • Lacey Bundrum - Oak Ridge
  • Colleen Campbell - Madison
  • Sarah Clinton - Nashville
  • Olivia Crossman - Nashville
  • Swathi Dasari - Brentwood
  • Monica Everett - Cordova
  • Barbara Goodrum - Paris
  • Megan Haynes - Knoxville
  • Jennifer Hout - Franklin
  • Gregory Hutchins - Murfreesboro
  • Kevin Krieb - Christiana
  • Nidhi Mali - Memphis
  • Alexis May - Milan
  • Katie Moore - Jackson
  • Lia Nichol - Powell
  • Edel Pace - Lebanon
  • Justin Ralls - Greenfield
  • Lindy Register - Bells
  • Sidney Roark - Oak Ridge
  • Michael Slowik - Knoxville
  • Lorraine Wakefield - Elizabethton
  • Dr. Sharon Webb - Memphis
  • Fleur Whitehead - Clarksville

This 29th Partners class kicked off last weekend - in person for the first time since the pandemic! Over the two-day session, these new scholars learned about themselves and each other and dove into the history of the disability rights movement. 

Over the next few months, the class will continue to meet virtually. The scholars will learn about all aspects of Tennessee's disability service system. They'll learn how to help shape policies that affect the lives of people with disabilities. And if past years are any sign - they'll also form a tight-knit village of support and encouragement that will last long after their graduation in April. 

Huge thanks to Cathlyn Smith, our Director of Leadership Development, for her excellent and compassionate work guiding our scholars through these months of learning that changes lives. 

Get to Know a Leader: Katie Moss, Chief of Long-Term Services and Supports, Division of TennCare

We like to introduce our readers to different leaders in TN's disability field. Meet Katie Moss, Chief of Long-Term Services and Supports with the Division of TennCare, our state's Medicaid agency.

Tell us a bit about your career background and your current role at TennCare.

I am honored to have been recently appointed by Director Smith as the new Chief of Long Term Services and Supports for the Division of TennCare; a role I never dreamed I would have.

When I started college, I planned to become a geriatric doctor who made house calls. After a semester of organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physics, I decided that was not the right path for me. I changed to social work and started an incredible internship at Legal Aid in Knoxville. Then I decided to apply for law school. I went to the University of Tennessee College of Law so I could graduate and work at Legal Aid. I moved to Nashville for a position at Legal Aid Society (LAS) and worked there for about 7 years. My work focused on issues related to health and benefits, such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security benefits, and benefits like food stamps (now called SNAP) and Families First. During my time at LAS, I worked on several cases related to long-term care and TennCare in federal court as well as the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Although the work was fulfilling, it became clear to me that litigation was not going to result in real change.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to join the TennCare Office of General Counsel. I was fortunate there to gain a much deeper understanding of the TennCare program. Patti Killingsworth asked me to join the LTSS office in 2021 as her deputy. That was probably more shocking to me than it was to anyone else. I am so thankful for her support, encouragement, and confidence in me to follow in her footsteps.

What is one thing you’re working on right now that you are excited about?

There are SO many exciting things we are working on right now at TennCare (not just LTSS):

  • Expanding dental benefits to all adults
  • Moving to a new software system called PERLSS for all LTSS. This will eventually end the need for all other systems for LTSS medical decisions. It will be the single source for processing LTSS medical eligibility and appeals. Having a single system that links to TEDS (the financial system) will make it easier for our members to go through the process for eligibility or to file an appeal.  
  • Bringing together the 1915(c) waivers and the Employment and Community First CHOICES program. This will make offering these programs easier for providers because they’ll have only one process to go through to be approved instead of separate processes for each program. It will also be easier to run the programs because they’ll be managed through the same system.
  • Working on all of the new programs funded through the American Rescue Plan Act funding. This includes a workforce development program that will help providers hire and keep good employees.
  • Partnering with sister agencies, organizations and other groups to build relationships and improve the experience for the people we support.

It’s hard to pick just one! From the perspective of impact for real people, I think Enabling Technology (ET) has the greatest potential to be a game changer. Not only can ET help people be more independent than they may have believed was possible, it also could help with the workforce crisis. We have several providers who have been accredited as Tech First organizations that are doing amazing things.

What is one of the biggest things you have learned from working with Tennesseans with developmental disabilities and their families?

I have learned that they are incredible and passionate advocates. That is saying something coming from a lawyer who considers herself a tenacious advocate!

What are some activities you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love spending time with friends and family, trying to garden (usually unsuccessfully, but if anyone needs some mint, I think it’s about to overtake my yard), hosting play dates for the kids or reading a good book (not of substance…think Janet Evanovich) in my hammock. Pre-COVID, I hosted parties: Halloween parties with a chili contest or Christmas cookie decorating parties for kids. I can’t wait to get back to that at some point.

When should members of the disability community reach out to you or your team directly?

I love hearing from families, individuals and providers! I welcome emails with questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions any time! Feedback is what allows us to improve and better serve individuals. Feel free to email me at katie.moss@tn.gov, but my staff are the subject matter experts in their programs, so working with them directly is usually the better option.

TDOT Becomes Newest Funder for TN Disability Pathfinder

 The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) is joining 7 other state government agencies in guiding and funding Tennessee Disability Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a one-stop center for finding disability information and supports. Because of Pathfinder, Tennesseans can bring nearly any disability question to Pathfinder’s searchable website or phone line and get help finding what they need. We are one of very few states to offer this type of center.
 
The Council is a founding investor in Pathfinder. We brought these 8 newer funding agencies together to increase investment in Pathfinder. Pathfinder is operated by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
 
Why does this matter?

  • Transportation comes up often as a top disability need (more on that below). TDOT launched the Office of Accessible Transportation and Mobility just a few years ago to study and work on barriers. TDOT has seen that a key barrier for people is having trouble finding services that already exist. This led the department to invest in Pathfinder. Increased funds will help link more Tennesseans with disabilities to transportation services.
  • People with disabilities and their families report struggling to find help with all kinds of disability-related needs. It can be hard to know what programs are available or where to find them. Pathfinder is a central place to connect to thousands of different services.
  • Increased funds pay for more Pathfinder staff and outreach. This allows Pathfinder to help more people with all kinds of disability needs.

 Where is Pathfinder now?

  • Increased funding paid for a major upgrade to Pathfinder’s website last year. The new site is organized by life stage and has many new features. This makes it easier for families and professionals to find the disability resources they need. If you haven’t visited Pathfinder in the last year, go see the upgrades for yourself!
  • Another recent improvement with the site upgrade: service providers can add themselves to Pathfinder or make updates to their listing. If you offer disability services, make sure you’ve taken this step so people can find your services.
  • In the past fiscal year, Pathfinder served:
    • 11,000+ people total through its website, phone helpline, and trainings
    • 8,100+ website visitors
    • 4,800+ social media followers

 What’s ahead for Pathfinder?

  • New funding also paid for an in-depth study by Vanderbilt researchers. The study showed what issues matter to the disability community and how people want to find disability information. That research is now guiding improvements to Pathfinder, including a new strategic plan. This will help Pathfinder grow and serve even more people in the years to come.
  • The Vanderbilt study showed in more detail what our own public input surveys have said – that accessible, affordable transportation is a top need for people with disabilities. This makes the addition of TDOT to the Pathfinder leadership team a critical addition.

 Who is the Pathfinder leadership group?

  1. The Council on Developmental Disabilities
  2. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center
  3. TN Commission on Aging and Disability
  4. TN Dept. of Education
  5. TN Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD)
  6. TN Dept. of Health
  7. TN Dept. of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation Services
  8. TN Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  9. TN Dept. of Transportation

All these agencies offer programs that serve people with disabilities. Together, the leadership group is making sure Pathfinder’s database and help line staff stay up-to-date. The group connects Pathfinder staff with state agency staff who know the most about their own programs. This allows Pathfinder to be the true expert in all areas of Tennessee’s disability services system. All agencies are learning that any time we get a question or need we can’t answer, we can refer people to Pathfinder.
 
Bottom line: If you or anyone you know needs disability information or services, TN Disability Pathfinder is your go-to! Connect on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for information and news about how Pathfinder is growing.  


August 2022

View original email with photos here.

From the Executive Director's Desk

Readers,

We hope you all had a great summer. Many of us are in “back to school” mode. In this edition, you will read about recent policy changes in Tennessee that affect students with disabilities, which we have been following all summer. Be sure to tell us your questions and thoughts on this topic. We are constantly learning from your perspectives and experiences.

We recently gathered with educators, state agency representatives, and Vanderbilt University’s Transition Tennessee teams. We were all there to discuss how we support students with disabilities preparing for life after high school. It was powerful to be together in person and in a school setting while talking about these issues.

I hope you will take time to check out the Center for Decision-Making Support, which shared a table with us at these events. Decision-making is the foundation of every other skill related to adult life. Until 2020, our state did not have a centralized resource to help students, parents, and educators navigate supports. At the transition events, we heard educators say things like: “This is exactly what we have needed for years!” It made us proud to have the Center for Decision-Making Support. Tennessee is the first in the nation to launch anything like it.

Lastly, we hope you’ll help us make sure all of the new adult-size changing tables grants are spent by this time next summer. Read on to learn how!

-Lauren Pearcy,
Executive Director

Back to school: Education issues we are watching

Students are headed back to school across the state this month. We wanted to tell you about some policy issues we’re watching closely as students with disabilities reenter the classroom.

First, a little about our role in education.
The Council on Developmental Disabilities works to improve education for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities by:

  • Providing reliable, accurate information
  • Learning about new best practices for inclusion
  • Engaging in solutions-focused advocacy

Our work is always informed by real-life experiences. Those come from our Council members, Partners in Policymaking graduates, and YOU - community members in our networks. We work with state agencies and community groups to inform families and educators and create meaningful change for students with developmental disabilities. 

There are several key education issues we're tracking this year.

Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA)
TISA is the new education funding formula that will take effect next school year. Even though we have another 12 months before it impacts schools, it’s a big deal. Education funding hasn’t been changed in Tennessee for the last 30 years.

At the beginning of August, the TN Department of Education’s public comment period about the new funding plan closed. (You can read what we shared with the department here, based on feedback from our members.) Now, they’re reading through the comments and finalizing the regulations that will take effect in 2023. We’re waiting to see those final regulations to understand exactly how students with disabilities will be impacted. Stay tuned to our weekly public policy news for more information.

Behavior supports for students
We have heard countless stories from our Council members, as well as other community members, about difficulties in getting appropriate behavior supports for students with disabilities. We have also heard some amazing success stories about what happens when students get the right support.

This will be the first full school year that a new regulation from the Department of Education is in place. That regulation sets out guidelines for what must be included in a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). (Learn more on the TN Dept. of Education's special education behavior webpage here.)

We’ve also been tracking several legislative proposals that would punish students who need behavior supports, including criminalizing the behavior of many students with disabilities. We’re concerned these proposals may unintentionally harm students and their families. We’ve also heard stories that some students with disabilities are being removed from their classrooms more frequently. Research shows us that when educators are supported with the right tools to deliver the right kinds of behavior supports for students with disabilities, many students thrive in inclusive classes with their peers.

If you have stories about behavioral supports for your child/student with disabilities, please share those with us. We want to hear both the positive and the negative stories:

  • problems with getting the services your child needs,
  • being removed from their classrooms or dismissed early,
  • AND successes where your child is getting the right kind of support.

All these stories help us better understand what is going on in schools for TN students.

School staffing shortages
We’re following stories about staffing shortages in schools, both among teachers and paraprofessionals. There are hundreds of job openings across the state. We’re waiting to see how students with disabilities will be impacted once they get back to the classroom. Our hope is that districts can find a way to bring teachers back and provide meaningful supports and services in the meantime – no small task.

Every school year brings a new set of challenges, as well as opportunities, to be addressed by the community. Your stories help us better understand the issues and find the right policy solutions for students and families. Email us anytime at tnddc@tn.gov.

In addition to our newsletters and social media, connect with our partners who work on education issues for students with disabilities, like:

Council Member Spotlight: Allie Haynes, Rural Health Association of TN

Starting this year, the Rural Health Association of TN (RHA of TN) will be represented on our Council as our nonprofit agency partner. Allie Haynes, Membership Manager at RHA, will be attending our Council meetings and sharing information about their work. Read below about Allie and our new partnership.

Tell us a bit about your background and your current role at RHA.

I am the Membership Manager at the Rural Health Association of Tennessee. I have been with RHA of TN for a year, and I have greatly enjoyed advocating and learning more about rural healthcare. 

My role is outreach to our members and to spread awareness about what we do at RHA of TN. I received my bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and I went on to serve in the Peace Corps as a Youth in Development Volunteer. I have a fifteen-year-old brother who has Down Syndrome, so advocating for both access to rural healthcare and access to programs for those with disabilities is very important to me.

Tell us a bit about the Rural Health Association. How is RHA working to improve rural healthcare for people with disabilities and their families?

The Rural Health Association of Tennessee (RHA of TN) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization of people and organizations committed to improving the health of rural Tennesseans. Our members are rural health care providers, school health professionals, and others who care about rural health work to affect positive change in the health and well-being of all rural people in Tennessee.

Our mission is to lead the way for a healthy Tennessee through partnerships, advocacy, education, and resources. Our advocacy focus includes addressing:

  • access to care and declining life expectancy in rural communities,
  • rural healthcare workforce shortages,
  • and investing in a strong rural safety net.

We serve as a healthcare resource. We now help with insurance, including enrollment in TennCare, Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, and more.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy connecting with our members and learning about the challenges they are facing. It is no secret that healthcare professionals across the board are facing a broad array of challenges, from hospital closings to funding to workforce shortages. By finding out the problems, we can move toward helping relieve that stress through advocacy and education.

How do you think connecting with the Council will be beneficial to RHA’s work?

By working with the Council, RHA of TN hopes to bring more awareness to programs accessible in rural communities to those with disabilities. Rural counties often have a lack of resources and access to care, but that does not mean there are no available resources. By sharing the knowledge of the Council, we hope to share the resources available for families with disabilities in rural areas.

Get to Know a Leader: Kendra Thomas, TN Dept. of Health

We like to introduce our readers to different leaders in TN's disability field. Meet Kendra Thomas, the Director of Integrated Systems of Services for Children and Youth with Special Healthcare Needs at the Department of Health.

Tell us a bit about your career background and your current role at the Dept. of Health.

I have been a Licensed Social Worker for the past 9 years and have served as a Mental Health Supervisor, Managed Care Specialist, Foster Care Coordinator, and Foster Care Social Worker. 

I currently serve as the Director of Integrated Systems of Services for Children and Youth with Special Healthcare Needs at the TN Department of Health, Central Office. I have the honor of serving youth ages 14-24 and families as well as overseeing two statewide emergency preparedness programs.

What is most exciting to you about your job?

The most exciting aspect of my job is watching our youth and young adults reach their goals and dreams. I enjoy engaging with them daily through several virtual platforms that are easily accessible. Several of our members have successfully transitioned into employment, post-secondary education, and mentorship for other youth. I love being a part of their journeys by writing recommendation letters and attending their virtual events. I look forward to attending in-person events with them in the future.

What is one of the biggest things you have learned from working with children/youth with disabilities and special healthcare needs and their families?

I have learned to always be open-minded and show support every hour of the day. It is vital to meet each individual where they are in life. If you support youth and families, they will support you.

What should the disability community know about the Youth Advisory Council?

The youth advisory council is designed for children and youth ages 14-24 with a special healthcare need. This includes physical, developmental, mental, emotional, or behavioral needs. YAC meets quarterly to discuss policies and events that impact their daily lives. The members also participate in countless trainings around IEP development, COVID-19 restrictions, transition services, and self-advocacy. Please contact me at Kendra.T.Thomas@tn.gov for additional information.

When should members of the disability community reach out to you directly?

Members of the disability community can reach out to me if they encounter youth and families that need assistance with transition resources, youth advisory council membership, emergency preparedness requests, or navigating the systems of care in Tennessee. This includes help with:

  • transportation
  • housing
  • mental health
  • financial
  • medical
  • education
  • post-secondary education
  • vocational rehabilitation
  • employment
  • legal services

I am a resource guru and will guide them in the right direction.

Silver Alert Program Helps Find Missing Adults with Disabilities

A mom is worried. Her young adult daughter with multiple disabilities and health conditions isn’t home and isn’t responding to texts or phone calls. The mom calls the local police department. She is told that her daughter hasn’t been missing for long enough to file a missing persons report. Where can the worried mom turn?

Maybe you’ve seen a Silver Alert pop up on your NextDoor app or the local news. You may know Silver Alert is a program to help locate missing persons age 60+. But this program under the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is also for missing adults (18+) who may be in danger or need help to return safely due to:

  • Intellectual/developmental disability
  • Physical disability
  • Dementia

What do I do if a loved one with a disability is missing?
If your loved one is missing and has a disability, ask your local police department to contact the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.

The local police department will follow the steps to request a Silver Alert from the TBI. You will need to give information about your loved one. That may include a description, photo, and statement about your loved one’s disability or health condition.  

What happens once a Silver Alert is issued?
If TBI approves a Silver Alert for your loved one, the department will:

  • Create a poster and activate the Silver Alert on the TBI website.
  • Send the poster statewide to law enforcement, media, and social media platforms.
  • Activate the 1‐855‐ALERT‐TBI automated information line.

 What’s different about the Silver Alert system?

  • There is no required amount of time for your loved one to be missing before they can be reported for a Silver Alert. Your police department can request a Silver Alert as soon as you report the missing person to them.
  • The program is statewide. This means law enforcement and the general public across Tennessee will be on the lookout and will know why your loved one may be in danger. This may be important if your loved one travels outside the local area.
  • The 1‐855‐ALERT‐TBI information line allows anyone to call if they believe they’ve seen your loved one.     

What happens when my loved one is found?
Your local police department will call 1‐800‐TBI‐FIND to report that your loved one has been found. The Silver Alert will then be removed from the TBI website.
 
Who should I contact if I have more questions about Silver Alert?
Call 1-800-TBI-FIND and ask to speak with the Missing Persons Unit.

TennesseeWorks: Office of Mobility and Accessible Transportation

A few years ago, the Council began regularly bringing together state agencies and disability advocates to work on improving accessible transportation across the state. From that group, an idea emerged to create a new state office to oversee transportation for people with disabilities.

Read about how that new office has been studying transportation barriers facing Tennesseans with disabilities in this new TennesseeWorks blog. The blog talks about about the second annual report from the Office of Mobility and Transportation.

Via TennesseeWorks "Rise to Work" blog: Two years ago, in March 2020, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Tennessee Accessible Transportation and Mobility Act. This legislation created a new office in the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Office of Mobility and Accessible Transportation. It also required the new office to develop a mission and scope, a five-year strategic plan, and an annual report on mobility and accessible transportation in Tennessee. Now, the Office of Mobility and Accessible Transportation has been established in TDOT and recently submitted the second annual report about accessible transportation in Tennessee to the Tennessee General Assembly. Read the entire blog.


July 2022

View original email with photos

From the Executive Director's Desk

Dear readers,

During Disability Pride month, our team has set aside time to reflect on and honor disability history. Many of us watched a webinar together, “Disability Rights are Civil Rights: How the Civil Rights Movement Impacted the Disability Rights Movement.” The webinar featured Judith Heumann and other civil rights leaders.

I couldn’t help but think about the role of our founding law, the Developmental Disabilities Act. The DD Act was also passed in the 1960s. It was the first time we as a nation proclaimed that “disability is a part of the human experience.” This is the north star our field needed. It has guided Councils on Developmental Disabilities ever since.

Celebrating disability pride hits differently after I re-immerse myself in history. I picture the Council members we rely on to shape our work and their loved ones and I wonder how we ever underestimated them so tragically. I sat next to one parent during a disability history presentation this year. She leaned over to share, “I was told to institutionalize my daughter. And that was 1992.”

Knowing this sobering history makes me proud to be part of this generation. It also reminds me that future generations will cringe at ours. We have a long way to go, and that’s why Councils still play such a critical role today.

Read on to hear from our current Council members – both citizen and agency representatives – and timely policy highlights.

-Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

Council Member Spotlight: Brent Wiles

Brent Wiles lives in Nashville and serves as one of the Council's at-large representatives, appointed by the Governor. Brent joined the council in 2019 after his youngest son George was born with Down syndrome in 2017.

What impresses me most about serving on the Council is getting to see the big impact that a relatively small group of involved individuals can have throughout state government and beyond. For decades, the Council has been a place where citizens, government representatives, and advocates come together to work to improve the lives of those with disabilities across the state.

I joined the Council not long after our son George was born, and I had little knowledge of the disability community and its many advocates. Whether it’s council members, the representatives of state government, university partners, or disability advocacy organizations, I’ve found a group that is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities have a voice and are not an afterthought.

Serving on the Council has helped educate me on various tools that are available to those with disabilities and their family members. I’ve been able to share information about Tennessee Disability Pathfinder with people, helped my wife set up a “buddy program” at our church to help children with disabilities participate in church activities, and shared our family’s experiences with council members and staff.

My goal is to continue growing my knowledge of disability issues through service on the Council so that I can better assist others in the years to come.

Get to Know a Leader: Jenna Martin, Director of Developmental Disability Services, TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD)

We like to introduce our readers to different leaders in TN's disability field. Meet Jenna Martin, who recently became the Director of Developmental Disability Services at DIDD.

Tell us about your previous background.

I started my career in the field of developmental disabilities at Independent Opportunities, Inc., supporting people as their Program Coordinator. After accepting a position in the Operations Department, I took the opportunity to apply and accept the Provider Support Team Coordinator position. I then became the Director of Operations position, and from there, the Deputy Director of Intake and Case Management at the DIDD Middle Tennessee Regional Office.

What is most exciting to you about your new position?

I have been fortunate in my career to be able to learn about most service options within home- and community-based settings. The TN Family Support program and the Autism Council were not areas I had been exposed to prior to this job. I am very excited to continue learning about both areas.

Can you describe a particular challenge or new opportunity you want to tackle in this role?

One thing Family Support providers have requested is a system to identify people who are receiving other funding sources. One of my main goals is to work with our Technical Support team to develop a system that will identify what services people are receiving. This will help our providers identify where we can assist people with additional supports from various programs.

The Family Support program received $1.03 million dollars in additional funding, and I am excited to see more families supported by the program than ever before, and some families receive more support than previous years.

For the TN Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder, I am happy to say that the committees just met on July 12, and they are all making efforts to improve the lives of Tennesseans with autism. We have some great ideas and action plans coming from those groups and it will be amazing to see what the Council accomplishes.

What’s something that has surprised you so far in your new role?

The amount of advocacy I have witnessed working with the TN Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder and with the Family Support Council is just incredible. I shouldn’t say that is a surprising thing, but it is incredible to see the passion behind each of these groups. I am happy to be a part of each of them.

When should members of the disability community reach out to you directly?

Both the Family Support Council and the TN Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder are quarterly meetings that are open to the public. If you have any interest in attending either or both meetings, please reach out and you will be added to our contact list. Information on how to attend either or both meetings is also included in the Public Meeting Notice published prior to each meeting.

You may also reach out to me any time you have questions about how DIDD might be able to assist you or someone you know at jenna.s.martin@tn.gov or 615-626-1579.

Tell local businesses to apply for adult-size changing tables funding

The TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) will be providing $5,000 grants to 200 businesses and municipalities to install universal adult-size changing table in restrooms that are open to the public.

Adult-size changing tables allow people of all ages and abilities to access safe, dignified, and hygienic toileting experiences.

How can you help?

  1. Share the application link in your community with businesses and other public spaces that need a table.
  2. Connect with your local officials to identify public places like rec centers and parks. 
  3. Help get the word out on social media! You can share any of this information directly on your social media or search for DIDD's posts about the grants and share those.

Get Help with Costs of Disability Conferences, Trainings with our Scholarship Fund

Now is a great time to apply for financial help through our Scholarship Fund to attend disability or advocacy conferences and trainings!

Each year on July 1, we have new funding available to support Tennesseans with disabilities and family members of people with disabilities with the costs of leadership and advocacy training.

You can read more about our Scholarship Fund on our website here. Here are just a few upcoming national disability conferences you might explore - but you can always check TN Disability Pathfinder's event calendar for all kinds of disability conferences and trainings, including events that are free and those that cost money.

  • The Arc U.S. National Convention - Nov. 10-12, 2022, Denver, CO; A conference about a variety of disability issues for all disability community members (self-advocates, families and professionals)
  • Association of University Centers on Disabilities conference (AUCD) - Nov. 13-16, 2022, Washington D.C.; A conference for those interested in emerging research and best practices in the disability field
  • TASH conference - Dec. 1-3, 2022, Phoenix, AZ; A conference about a variety of disability issues for all disability community members (self-advocates, families and professionals)

Learn about new school funding formula, "TISA" 

The Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA) was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Bill Lee on May 2, 2022. TISA is Tennessee’s new public-school funding formula. TISA replaces the 30-year-old “Basic Education Plan” (BEP).

The Tennessee Department of Education is now accepting public comment on the details of TISA. It's important that our community has good information on how TISA will change public school funding in Tennessee. We want you to know what that means for students with disabilities. 

We're grateful to the Tennessee Disability Coalition for partnering with us on plain language information about TISA. More information will be added in the coming days and weeks. Please follow the Council and the TN Disability Coalition on social media for updates. 

TISA 101 - How TISA Works

Explore new videos for the TN Center for Decision-Making Support

There are several new videos featured on the website for the TN Center for Decision-Making Support. These videos will help you learn about supported decision-making and how to use the Center's website. 

Some of the topics include:

  • Welcome to the Tennessee Center for Decision-Making Support
  • Decision-Making Supports vs Supported Decision-Making
  • The LifeCourse Exploring Decision-Making Supports Tool; and more!

TN's Center for Decision-Making Support, which launched in 2020, is joint project of the Council, The Arc Tennessee, and Disability Rights Tennessee. The Center’s goal is to provide easy to understand, accurate information about all decision-making support options for people with disabilities, in one place.

Explore the video library and other resources at www.tndecisionmaking.org.


June 2022

View original email with photos.

From the Executive Director's Desk

Dear readers,

You will read about leadership in this edition of our e-news, both inside and outside of state government. This is what I love about the Council: we are a rare entity that has a foot planted squarely in both worlds, so to speak.

I have been deep in that intersection over the past few weeks while attending the (in person!) Transition TN resource fairs across the state. We showcased our programs so that teachers can help families connect to opportunities. We pointed them to resources like our scholarship fund and Partners in Policymaking. The highlight for me was hearing our Council members who graduated from the Partners in Policymaking Program explain the difference it made for them.

We talked to teachers about other key resources we fund that can help them focus on the teaching part of their jobs. We showed them how to help students use TN Disability Pathfinder to find services and how to use the Center for Decision Making Support to answer questions about conservatorship and other decision-making options. It fills me up to see communities connect with statewide resources. Nothing can replicate an in person networking event. I’ve missed it.

If you care about someone approaching adulthood, we can talk you through the many programs available to help. Often, learning about what’s out there is the biggest hurdle. We’re here to help.

We hope you are all having a great summer.

Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

P.S. At this half-way point in 2022, we’d love your feedback on changes we made to this newsletter this year. Can you take just 1 or 2 minutes to fill out this survey? Your input really does guide how we communicate!

Council Member Spotlight: Alicia Hall

Alicia Hall is one of our Governor-appointed Council members for the Memphis Delta Development District. She serves as the chair of our audit committee and graduated from our Partners in Policymaking® Leadership Institute. She also serves on committees for the National Federation of the Blind, the TN Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) West TN Family Support Council, and the Memphis Advisory Council for Citizens with Disabilities.

She is passionate about disability advocacy because her son Gino II was born with a visual disability.

We want you to get to know our members better, so we asked Alicia to share with us about her leadership and advocacy efforts!

What do you think are the most important things you’ve learned through serving on the Council?
Alicia: The most important things I have learned through serving on the Council are:

  • I can have input on bills as they pertain to the disability community.
  • How to be an advocate.
  • If I have any questions or concerns I can reach out to the Council staff for guidance.

How has serving on the Council helped you advocate in your local community?
Alicia: I have always been some type of advocate most of my life. I always find a way to fight for the underdog. By serving on the Council, it has helped me advocate in my local community by reaching out to local and state government officials on concerns of the disability communities. It has also helped me become a mentor and help others become advocates.
 
How has serving on the Council helped motivate you to go deeper with your advocacy?
Alicia: Serving on the Council helped motivate me to go deeper with my advocacy by giving me a plethora of information on learning opportunities to broaden my knowledge and lighting the fire to do more.

I registered to be a student in the Vanderbilt Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP) that starts August 15, 2022. VAP is a 12-week program to train people to become advocates for families navigating the special education process.
 
What are your advocacy dreams for the future?
My advocacy dream is to be a full-time advocate for the disability community. My near future goal is to become a student at the University of Memphis in Fall of 2022, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work.

Third Class of TN Leadership Academy for Excellence in Disability Services Begins

Thanks to a brilliant idea from Council staff member Alicia Cone, Tennessee is the only state in the nation to offer disability-specific leadership training for state employees.

In 2015, Alicia had a light bulb moment: People in agencies across state government were serving citizens with disabilities. But none of those agency staff had access to learning on core disability issues and best practices. This led her to suggest what became the Leadership Academy for Excellence in Disability Services – or LAEDS. (View our video about LAEDS featuring graduates talking about its impact here.)

A new class of scholars just began this year’s LAEDS training, co-hosted with the TN Department of Human Resources. Class members are from 10 different state agencies:

  • Dept. of Safety
  • Dept. of Human Services
  • Dept. of Correction
  • Dept. of Transportation
  • Dept. of Education
  • Veterans Affairs
  • Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
  • Dept. of Environment and Conservation
  • TennCare
  • Dept. of Health

When we gathered for the in-person kickoff, this diverse group of state employees heard an overview of disability history by Dr. Bruce Keisling of the UT Health Science Center on Developmental Disabilities. It was powerful to watch the group process this information together, with all their different perspectives on today’s disability system.

The class will meet every other month through April 2023, building leadership skills AND knowledge of disability issues and resources. Sessions will focus on connecting across departments and systems. The end goal: skilled leaders who can together shape a service system that supports Tennesseans with disabilities to live their dreams.

Council Director of Leadership Development Cathlyn Smith says, “There are more than 150 service programs for people with disabilities in our state. This academy provides an opportunity for state employee leaders to come together and connect across those programs. They learn to identify where breakdowns in communication happen, what services may need updating, or where they can work together on new programs to meet the changing needs of people with disabilities. My hope is members of this new class will go back to their agencies with renewed eagerness, armed with the newest information and ideas.”

Members of the class will work over the coming months on team projects that propose creative solutions to a real-world problem in disability services. Members will present their projects to senior government leadership, including from the Governor’s office, at the end of the class.

The Council is proud to offer this chance to help grow Tennessee leaders in disability services. A member of last year’s LAEDS class summed it up well: “The efforts to bring about change require people to work together to solve problems and create solutions.”

Earlier this year, we finished a long-term study of the first LAEDS classes. The results showed a big impact on state employees. They reported changes in how they think about disability services . They were better able to find ways to work together across services after going through LAEDS. This study will be published in the International Journal of Developmental Disabilities, showing the importance of LAEDS as a national model.
  • “LAEDS helped us think differently. Every speaker offered something that drove home the shared goals we have.”
  • “I would not have my network in the disability field without LAEDS. And I reference research from our group project to this day.”
  • “LAEDS offered context to other disability services and removed the need to start at zero in terms of what each agency can do to help.” 

Get to Know a Leader: Tanika Arms, Director of the State as a Model Employer (SAME) program, TN Department of Human Resources

Hi, I am Tanika Arms and I have worked for the State of TN for 18 years, for several departments, mainly in Human Resource divisions. I currently work for the Department of Human Resources as the director of the State as A Model Employer (SAME) program.

The purpose of the SAME Program is to ensure that state agencies and departments use best policies, practices, and procedures for recruitment, hiring, advancement, and retention of qualified people with disabilities.

What excites me most about the about the SAME program is that it not only gives me the opportunity to continue to help state workers, but I am also able to show the citizens of TN with disabilities that the State of TN is making the necessary changes to be an inclusive and accessible place to work. We can be a model for other companies in TN.

This program is an opportunity to bring about cultural changes and social awareness around the employment of people with disabilities. SAME gives employees a voice to address ways that we can improve how we support employees with disabilities. To do this, we first had to get feedback from current state employees with disabilities. We did this in December 2021, when we sent out the "employee experience survey."

We also updated our human resources information system to allow state employees to voluntarily disclose their disability status in a simple and confidential way. We recently held the “This is Me” campaign kick-off event, which was centered around employee belonging. It highlights aspects of our identities that make us who we are and encourages voluntary disclosure of disability and veteran status. 

Everybody should be able to bring their full selves to work. I hope when they see other employees sharing their “This is Me” statements and stories, it will make employees feel comfortable to tell their own story. I hope employees will disclose their disability status in our Edison system and request an accommodation if one is needed. I hope job applicants will ask for accommodations they need both during the application and interview process and while on the job.
 
Below is my “This is Me” statement and a link to a couple “This is Me” videos and the video of William Arnold, who works for the Dept. of Labor and Workforce Development.
 
"Hi, I am Tanika Arms and I work for the Department of Human Resources as the HR Program Director for the SAME Program.  I currently live in Nashville, TN and I am a mother of two teenagers, and one of them has a learning disability.  I am also a black woman over the age of 40, who suffers from migraines. I am Tanika Arms, THIS IS ME and together we are One TN."

Precious Cargo Act: Privately Disclose Your Disability to First Responders, Law Enforcement

Did you know that Tennesseans can privately disclose their disability for use by law enforcement and first responders? If you want to disclose your disability and need for help, fill out this form from the TN Dept. of Revenue’s website and take it to your county clerk’s office.

If you need an accommodation or have questions, contact revenue.support@tn.gov.

Our Council member Martez Williams uses a wheelchair and needs canes to transfer out of his vehicle. “What happens if I get stopped by the police and ordered to get out of the car? If I reached for my canes, would the police officer think that I was reaching for a weapon?” The concern has plagued Martez, who has not wanted a public display of disability on his vehicle.

Last year, Martez worked with legislators to pass the Precious Cargo Act which allows Tennesseans to voluntarily and privately disclose to law enforcement and first responders the need for assistance with communication or exiting a vehicle.


May 2022

View full original email with photos here.

From the Executive Director's Desk

Dear readers,

Since our last newsletter, we held our first in-person Council meeting in over two years.

It was a truly joyous occasion. On top of celebrating our reunion, we got to celebrate several major accomplishments. The same day as our meeting, Council member Brigham Scallion helped accept a $300,000+ grant award from the TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) to Dyersburg State. The grant will fund the state’s first inclusive higher education program at a community college.  Also the same day as our meeting, we got word that the General Assembly would invest $1 million in adult- size changing tables, one of the Council’s top priorities. (More in article below – read on!) All of us jumped to our feet to applaud and cheer this news. It was a perfect moment to be together in person.
 
Finally, we celebrated the service of Council members Jennifer Coleman (Northwest Development District) and Lesley Guilaran (Southwest Development District) as their terms come to an end this summer. Both of these women have had a profound impact on me, personally, during their time on the Council. The stories they were willing to share about their daily lives have had a direct impact on the Council’s priorities. They have impacted issues like:

Here are quotes from each member:

  • “The amount of growth I have experienced as a mom, a teacher, and as a person, I am not sure you can measure any of that growth that I have experienced from the Council, because it is so extensive.” -Lesley Guilaran
  •  “With all certainty I can say my time serving on the Council has been the most meaningful contribution I have made in my life so far.” -Jennifer Coleman

Later this summer, we’ll welcome new members to fill these spots. We recruit all year long in every area of the state to keep a pipeline of leaders in the disability community. If you know someone for us to meet, please let us know: Tnddc@tn.gov.

Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

Changing Tables, Changing Lives

Tennessee is celebrating a huge disability policy win: The legislature just passed a state budget that includes $1 million dollars for adult-size changing tables. The money will fund grants for tables in 200 businesses and community locations.

It all started with one mom’s story.

Chrissy Hood is our Governor-appointed Council member from Pulaski. You may recognize her as the public face of Tennessee’s work for adult-size changing tables.

Chrissy didn’t know that’s where she was headed when she was appointed to the Council in 2019. She had a story, and she decided to share it with Lauren Pearcy, then the Council’s Director of Public Policy.

Lauren is now our Executive Director. “The issue of adult-size changing tables wasn’t on my radar,” Lauren says. “It just wasn’t something I’d experienced or even heard about. Chrissy spoke so powerfully about how the lack of adult-size tables affects her teenage daughter, Alaina, and their whole family. She talked about it as an issue of community access and basic dignity. As we brought the issue to the full Council, other members shared how they were also affected, or had seen the issue in their communities. Those who were not familiar, like me, instantly wanted to help. To our pleasant surprise, so did policymakers and businesses.”

The Council went to work.

It’s the magic formula of our Council: Members bring their stories. Staff bring expertise and resources to make sure those stories are heard where they can matter most. In 2020-21, our members met with their legislators. They met with local community leaders and businesses. They wrote letters we shared with policymakers. They appeared in videos. They wrote op-eds and talked to TV reporters. They researched details and brought us new ideas for outreach. The Council took out billboards and wrote a one-pager that spread across the state. The work was picked up by many of our Partners in Policymaking® scholars and graduates. Other disability organizations joined the effort and helped build awareness.

A bill was introduced in 2021.

Chrissy’s representative, Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), was the House sponsor. Member Roddey Coe’s representative, Bo Watson (R-Hixson), was the Senate sponsor. In both cases, our members explained real-life experiences in their own communities. Their legislators were instantly supportive. The bill went through many changes, with lots of input from Chrissy, Roddey, and others over several years. Patience and persistence were key.

At the very end of the 2021-22 legislative session, just a few weeks ago, the content of that bill was passed as part of the state budget. In fact, the legislature DOUBLED the amount of money without being asked!

But there is more.

There were unexpected obstacles and victories along the way. For example, Council members worked with their local governments to get commitments from East Ridge, Smyrna, Pulaski, and Jackson for installing changing tables in public areas. Pulaski now has TWO adult-size tables in public buildings.

After seeing the Council’s video of Chrissy’s story, the TN Department of Transportation committed to putting adult-size changing tables in every rest stop and welcome center in the state, starting in the next few months. The TN Department of Environment and Conservation committed to putting adult-size changing tables in every state park as part of its Access 2030 project.

Thanks to community advocacy, local businesses and attractions like Smyrna’s new Freedom Inclusive Playground, the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, and Camp Jordan in East Ridge have added or are planning to add adult-size changing tables. 

What’s next?

The funds in the state budget will pay for 200 tables at $5,000 each. Tennessee businesses and community locations will be able to apply for a grant to help pay for adult-size changing tables in their buildings. The TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) will manage the grant program.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Start talking NOW to people in your community about the need for adult-size, height-adjustable changing tables.  Where does your community gather? That’s where adult-size changing tables need to be! It could be playgrounds, grocery stores, active faith communities, city buildings, shopping centers, theaters or concert venues – anywhere people go to be a part of life in your community. You can be the voice for greater accessibility in your neighborhood. Our website has information you can share about why this issue matters. We’re here to help – email us ideas for locations in your community!
  2. Watch this newsletter for details about how to apply for the grants. We’ll be sharing that information from DIDD as soon as they have the application process ready – likely by this summer.  
  3. Help us spread the word!  You can help make sure your community knows how to access these grants. Share the application link once it’s available with anyone who might be interested.

Tennessee is now the national leader on adult-size changing tables. With your help, every community in our state can offer access and dignity to people with disabilities, veterans, and aging adults who need a safe changing space.

Wanda Willis gets national award for work for people with I/DD and mental health needs

Wanda Willis served as Executive Director of our Council for more than three decades. Her impact in that role has been far-reaching. This month, she was recognized by a national organization for her work for people with both intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) and mental health needs. 
 
Wanda was awarded the 2022 William I. Gardner Social Justice Award from the National Center for START Services (NCSS) at the Institute on Disability University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, University of New Hampshire.

The William I. Gardner Award is NCSS’s highest honor. Each year, the award recognizes a national leader who has promoted social justice to improve the lives of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and mental health needs.
 
From the letter to Wanda:

“As a disability and family advocate and Executive Director of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, your contributions over the years have helped to improve the lives of many with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families both in Tennessee and across the country, including those with mental health needs.  Your knowledge and wisdom were demonstrated as you played a lead role with the TN-START pilot in 2004-2008, the first replication of the START model, and again when you led the DD Council to assist in the now-statewide implementation of TN START across the state of Tennessee in 2019. Wanda, you have been an invaluable colleague and supporter of our efforts.” 

– Joan Beasley, Director, National Center for START Services

We asked her about the award and her work on this issue. 

You can read more about TN START on the TN Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities website here.

Interview with Wanda Willis

What does the award mean to you?
 
I was speechless and overwhelmed when I learned about the award from Dr. Joan Beasley, director of the National Center for START Services. It was an unexpected honor coming at the end of my 50-year career, 35 years as head of the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities.
 
How did the Council get involved in bringing START to TN? Why did you see it as important?
 
More than 20 years ago, the Council brought two divisions together: mental health services and the division of intellectual disabilities. It was a chance to learn about best practices for Tennesseans who had both disabilities – intellectual disability and mental health issues. This is often known as a “dual diagnosis.” The needs in this community are some of the most challenging in our state and across the entire country.
 
Joan Beasley was a national expert at the University of New Hampshire developing an approach known as START services ("Systematic, Therapeutic, Assessment, Resources & Treatment"). I was blown away by what I learned from Joan. I went to the training session expecting a psychology lecture and tools for writing a 30-page behavioral plan. What I learned was the most person-centered approach imaginable.
 
The START approach was to back up, look at what was going on around the person, look at physical health, look at the environment, look at the support team. Was there something that WE might be doing to create discord in the individual’s life? My experience on various behavior teams and on incident review boards over the years told me this would work. I felt it was the best, most respectful, and even empowering approach that professionals could take that would actually make a difference.
 
Tennessee launched a short-lived START program that lasted only a year. However, we now have an amazing program called TN START. It is led by the Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD). It has been carefully planned so it can keep going into the future. I last heard that 86% of people served in TN START avoided having to leave their homes to get treatment.
 
What do you most want readers to know about START?
 
START works. The approach is truly “person-centered.” START treats people with respect. It removes barriers that get in the way of a person’s success in the community, their education, job, and relationships.

START is based on my favorite principle – it’s us, not them. When we work on environmental factors, dive deep into physical history and health, offer opportunities equal to those for peers and siblings, and find a person’s interests and passions, we open doors to life experiences that all of us have. Not perfect, not without challenges, but opportunities to try.
 
What do you hope is the future for START in TN?
 
I believe the future of TN START is secure. It is already proving to be a centerpiece of our system in TN.
 
I look forward to closer partnership among:

  • TN START
  • the excellent employment services in TN
  • the amazing technology programs across departments
  • and, through the Council, with the many other nationally-recognized disability programs in TN.

That kind of connection will give the best opportunities to Tennesseans with disabilities and their families.
 
I am reminded daily by individuals and families that we have more to do and gaps to fill. Tennessee has long been recognized nationally for our ability to cross boundaries and work toward a shared vision. START and the people of Tennessee benefit when we work across agencies and programs to deliver the best we have to offer.

Get to Know a Leader: Jeremy Norden-Paul, Division of Program Innovation Director, TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Some kids know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. I have friends who always knew they wanted to be a nurse or doctor, and others who were 100% sure they would become a teacher. I always envied people who felt so clear and confident about their futures. They seemed to have everything figured out and know exactly how they wanted to contribute to the world.

I was definitely not one of those people. When I was young, thinking about the future made me feel anxious and uncertain.

One big thing I have realized over the years is that no one really has their life completely figured out. Most of us are constantly trying to figure out what we want to be when we “grow up” because our lives and careers are constantly changing. That is part of what makes life so beautiful, challenging, and interesting. Looking back, I am so grateful for my experiences and what they taught me. While I still do not know what the future holds, I feel more confident about how I can make a positive difference in the world and live a meaningful life.

After I graduated from college with a degree in political science and Spanish, I had the opportunity to become an elementary special education teacher in my hometown. I got my teaching certification and a master's degree.

After a couple of years of teaching, I realized two important things. First, educators are incredible and deserve to be millionaires.  Second, classroom teaching was a lifechanging experience and I learned so much, but it was not how I wanted to spend my career.

When I made the decision to leave the classroom, I started to have those nervous feelings again about my future. Thankfully my wonderful family and friends reminded me it is okay to feel unsure, it is okay to change directions, and it is okay to do things that make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, those are the very experiences that build our character and help us grow into the fullest versions of ourselves.

I spent the next several years trying different jobs and getting deeper into the disability field. I became a job coach and job developer for people with disabilities. Helping people get jobs in the community was not only rewarding for me personally, but also very positive for the people I helped. These experiences inspired me to work on broader disability policy and service delivery issues. So I took a job as the state director of employment and day services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD). After that, I became the executive director of the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council.

Just recently I returned to DIDD as the director of the division of program innovation. Our division creates new tools and services to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to create the life they envision for themselves. I have an incredible team and we are so fortunate to get to do this work every day.

If I could go back in time and talk to my childhood self, I would say it is okay to feel unsure about the future. I would also say the most important thing is to find ways to make a positive difference in other people’s lives and there are so many ways to do that.

Our life journey is about figuring about what our unique strengths and gifts are and how to share them with others. With any luck, the journey will be a long and rewarding one.

Please feel free to contact me (jeremy.norden-paul@tn.gov) if you ever want to talk about DIDD’s division of program innovation and how we are helping people become more independent at home, at work, and in their community. You can also contact me if you want to know more about my journey or swap stories about figuring out what we want to be when we “grow up”.

Top 3 Financial Aid Resources for Inclusive Higher Education

We've been hearing questions from the community about how to afford inclusive higher education. We have good news! Tennessee offers financial aid to help students with intellectual and developmental disabilities attend inclusive college programs. 

Tennessee has 6 inclusive higher education programs on college campuses, with more in the works right now. Visit TN's Inclusive Higher Education Alliance website to learn more about the programs.

So, how can families get help paying for these programs? We've collected a few great resources to help you learn about your financial aid options. 

Financial Aid Information Resources:

  1. TN Inclusive Higher Education Alliance Financial Information for Families webpage (see the PDF chart from Transition TN on this page too outlining options for families)
  2. Think College webpage on paying for college (Plus Think College is hosting a webinar on May 25 on this topic - attend and ask the nation's experts on inclusive higher education your questions!)
  3. Transition Tennessee's webcasts about postsecondary education (select "postsecondary education" check box to narrow down the results)

April 2022

View original email

From the Executive Director's Desk

Dear readers,
 
April has been a joyful month around here: we celebrated this year’s graduating class of Partners in Policymaking® scholars, who managed via Zoom to forge the same type of strong connections that make the program so special. I got to hear reflections from each scholar and was moved to tears several times. What sticks with me the most is hearing scholars reflect on the calming, safe space created by our Director of Leadership Development, Cathlyn Smith, and the renewed optimism and hope they feel because of participating in the program. That is more important than any other impact, in my view.

Internally, as staff, we are continuing to focus on team building after two years of virtual meetings plus a leadership transition. Several of us gathered at a Nashville Sounds game this week to hear Cathlyn’s daughter, who identifies as Deaf-Blind, sing the national anthem. If you haven’t heard about Tyler, you can listen to her speak for a 2020 AbleVoices "I AM DETERMINED!" virtual exhibit event or a podcast interview with her on “The Landscape”. We’re so proud to count her part of our Council family!

We still have much to look forward to, with the changing tables bill nearing the finish line and our first in-person Council meeting on Friday, 4/22. If you have never attended a Council meeting, check out our upcoming dates.

Thanks, as always, for supporting the Council and reading this newsletter. Wishing everyone a Happy Spring!

Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute Class of 2021-22

We're so proud to welcome the following Partners graduates into our alumni network of the more than 600 graduates of TN's Partners in Policymaking program. These leaders, who are all Tennesseans with disabilities and/or family members of Tennesseans with disabilities, are a diverse group of people living across the state who will be working to improve our communities become more accessible, welcoming and inclusive to people with disabilities and families. 

Read below from just a couple of neat stories about how these graduates are already making a positive impact and supporting one another!

  • Molly Anderson
  • Allan Burtt
  • Carrie Carlson
  • Pisanach “Peach” Chinratanalab
  • Desiree Dyer
  • Rhonda Gaston
  • Michelle Gross
  • Nerressia Harris
  • Chrissy Hood
  • Teaka Jackson
  • Jacquelyne Kancir
  • Jamelle Leggs-Jemison
  • Brittney Manis
  • Teresena Medlock
  • Deborah Norman
  • Cynthia Parker
  • Dana Saywell
  • Allie Schmidt
  • Tamara Tuckson
  • Omegbhai Uriri
  • Mehret Wellelegne
  • Emily Whitson
  • Shirley Williams

Partners Graduates Advocating Together

Council staff interviewed Pisinach (Peach) Chinratanalab and McKenzie Tuckson about how they’ve worked together on advocacy for themselves and others. McKenzie responded to questions using her assistive communication device. McKenzie’s mom, Tamara Tuckson, also participated in the interview.

Peach and Tamara are brand new 2022 Partners graduates!

 
How did you meet?

McKenzie: I met Peach, my bestie, through an Employment and Community First CHOICES “Members Only” self-advocacy program. Peach said, “Take my number and I’d be more than happy to help with anything you need.” She has left no stone unturned to assist me with life after high school.

Peach: We do this quarterly [ECF CHOICES] meeting. That’s how I met McKenzie, via Zoom. And then, next thing I know, her mom is looking at the Next Steps [Vanderbilt inclusive higher education] program and talking to me about how it might benefit McKenzie. They visit me at work every Sunday at Bubble Love. Her mom and I have been in the same Partners class.
 
How are you working together to grow your self-advocacy?

McKenzie: Peach has been instrumental in my joining Best Buddies, the Arc’s People First, and Special Olympics. She was instrumental in helping me work at Bubble Love. She gave me the courage to ask if I could work there. She lets me know that if one door closes, another will open.

Peach: I get frustrated sometimes, but McKenzie’s like, “Girl, seriously. You can do anything you put your mind to. Don’t get nervous.” I spoke to Harold Love, her representative, on Disability Day on the Hill. And she’s like, “If you can speak like that, you can do anything.”
 
What are some things you’ve learned from each other?

McKenzie: I have a friend who understands me. She understands that I’m nonverbal, that I communicate with a communication device, and that it doesn’t make me any less. She accepts my mom talking for me sometimes when it’s difficult to communicate.

Tamara: Peach was instrumental in McKenzie applying to the IDEAL [inclusive higher education] program at Lipscomb. She’d call and say, “I’ve got the interview questions for McKenzie. You’ve got this. You go ahead and you try.” The day of the interview, she called as we got out of the car, saying, “You’ve got this!” She even told McKenzie, “If you don’t get in, I will try my very best to get you into the Next Steps program [at Vanderbilt], and I will be your advisor and your mentor. I’m there for you.”

Peach: Every time I get frustrated, McKenzie says, “Girl, seriously, you’ve got this. Get your life together. You know I support you.” Life can be stressful, but what I’ve learned from McKenzie is that I can do things that feel hard.
 
What advice do you have for other self-advocates?

Peach: Talk about what you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about education, talk about that. Go to events like Disability Day on the Hill. Connect with your circle of support. Advocate, advocate, advocate. Keep up with your legislators. Help other people, support other people. Trust yourself and what you want to talk about. Practice, join a support group, and support other people.

McKenzie: My advice is to not let the title “self-advocate” make you feel like you have to do this alone. It’s okay to ask for help and to join self-advocacy groups. I’m fortunate to have Peach, my parents, and self-advocacy groups to help me in my journey. Self-advocacy can be learned at any age.

Tamara: I prayed for somebody like Peach. I asked God for a friend who could understand McKenzie and the way she communicates. Peach understands that McKenzie is aware of everything that goes on, she just has several different ways to respond.  At the end of the day, Peach has been an advocate for me, also. We needed Peach’s help. I’m a mom and have all these other responsibilities. I had just about mastered how to advocate for McKenzie in the school system, and now it’s time to transition into the adult services world, and it’s a big difference. We needed Peach’s help with ECF CHOICES [TN’s home and community-based services program for people with developmental disabilities] along with countless other resources. Peach has a wealth of knowledge, and she is eager to share it.
 
Tamara and Peach, how has Partners in Policymaking helped you grow your leadership and advocacy skills?

Tamara: I love that you have a network of people who are in class with you for several weeks and who are very open with sharing their stories. You also have educated and passionate people coming in to present and educate you about the resources that are out there. It taught me that there are so many people that are passionate about helping people with exceptional needs, and if they are unable to help, they will find someone who can.

Also, we participated in Disability Day on the Hill as part of Partners. McKenzie and Peach met with Representative Harold Love as part of McKenzie’s general education social studies class at Whites Creek High school. Her classmates got to see the friendship between McKenzie and Peach, but also see how McKenzie didn’t let anything stop her from advocating using her device. The teachers, Mr. Tidwell and Mr. Fox, were able to meet Rep. Love and make a lesson plan about the bills McKenzie and Peach supported.

Peach: I set up the meeting and arranged for it. Now I know McKenzie’s teacher! Partners in Policymaking taught me about Disability Day on the Hill. I wanted to play my part in the changing tables bill being successful.
Tamara: We were at Outback Steakhouse for my parents’ anniversary. I took a picture of the infant changing table. I took that photo so Representative Harold Love and McKenzie’s social studies classroom could see the issue first-hand: this is what advocacy looks like. I’ve also learned more about how ECF CHOICES works through Partners. It’s been great getting to know everybody in the class.
 
What’s next for your disability advocacy goals?

Peach: The main thing is keeping up with legislation. I have a new podcast, “Not So Speachless,” with support from my friend, Elijah, who is a special ed teacher. I’ve had McKenzie on. I’d like to have her on for a second episode.

McKenzie: I will continue to advocate for other individuals with exceptional needs and apply for colleges if I’m not accepted into the IDEAL program. I plan to increase my hours at work at my own pace. I am also in the process of writing two books about my experiences: “Why McKenzie Can’t Talk” and “How Is She Going to Cheer?”

Partners Graduates, Families "Out and About": Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Social Group

Tennessee Out & About is a community group for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) users and their families, friends, teachers, therapists, and mentors. They welcome people who use AAC of all ages, using any communication device or language system. It's run by a collective group of parents, mentors, and speech-language pathologists whose mission is to engage AAC users in various community activities. Tennessee's Out & About group is modeled after similar groups located across the U.S. (read more about the history of the group here).

Along with 2 speech language pathologists (Brandi Wentland and Kaleena Smith), Tennessee's Out and About group is now led by 3 Partners in Policymaking alumni who plan and participate in virtual and in-person events:

  • Chrissy Hood (2022 Partners graduate; Council on Developmental Disabilities member; parent of a young adult AAC user)
  • Omegbhai Uriri (2022 Partners graduate; Autism TN staff; parent of a young adult AAC user); and
  • Courtney Johnson (2021 Partners graduate; peer mentor and AAC user)

Chrissy Hood reflected on the value of Out and About: "During our Partners in Policymaking Class, we learned about serving on boards and being involved in the community. Being involved in "Tennessee: Out & About: A Group for AAC Users" is one way I am taking the principles learned during Partners and putting it into action. 

I love the group because my daughter Alaina has the opportunity to not only socialize while needing to stay at home for her safety, but we are also building on her communication skills and use of her AAC device, as well as seeing an AAC user, Courtney, in a leadership position - giving value to Alaina's voice/device. We all desperately want socialization during these times, and Alaina needs to practice her communication skills.

This month, we had a virtual meeting about gardening. The participants talked about what they like about spring, painted flower pots, discussed what they would plant in their flower pots, made dirt cups, discussed if they liked dirt cups, read a story, and took a family photo. We are planning an in-person event in June."

Courtney Johnson shared about the group: “I decided to get involved with Out and About for many reasons, including being able to socialize with other AAC users and to become more proficient with my device. However, I think the part that gives me the most joy is interacting with younger participants and being an AAC mentor.

I love to see their faces light up with excitement when they see a facilitator exclusively using AAC. Watching them build both confidence and friendships is absolutely wonderful!”

Get to Know a Leader: Kevin Wright, Assistant Commissioner, TN Department of Human Services Division of Rehabilitation Services

“And what do you do?” is often the first question that is asked when you meet someone for the first time, right after “What is your name?” As I prepared to graduate from high school, I didn’t know how I’d answer that question. What I did know was that because of my disability, I’d likely need a college education to do it. I knew that the Vocational Rehabilitation program (VR) could help me find my way and fund part of the journey. I also knew that I wanted to help people find their way, too.

Once graduating from college with VR’s assistance, I set out for the next part of my journey to answer that question and landed the first full-time job that paved the way for over two decades in public service.

Former Council Executive Director, Wanda Willis, saw my potential and passion for helping people help themselves. As the first-ever director of the Council’s Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute, I could confidently answer the question, “And what do you do?” I also had the privilege of helping others help themselves by developing lifelong advocacy skills. In my 5 years at the Council, I witnessed the inspiring growth of people from all walks of life as they developed their skills to navigate complicated systems and then helped those who came after them.

I was humbled to be a part of many life journeys that took paths influenced by the Council’s work, and, in small part, mine.

After over 25 years in public service, my journey of helping people help themselves isn’t over. Recently, I had the honor of being entrusted with leading a fabulous team of dedicated folks who share my passion of supporting the journey of others with my appointment as Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Rehabilitation Services.

Our purposeful focus on person-centered, strength-focused, community-based services through a transformation in all of our programs, but specifically the VR program, over the last couple of years has been moving toward improving the customer’s experience.

While we have done a lot of work with a focus on customer success, we still have some work to do. I hope that you continue to allow us to be part of your journey as together we all help each other help ourselves.

Get to Know a Leader: James Dunn, Executive Director, TN Commission on Aging and Disability

I recently returned from a conference in Washington, D.C. focused on home- and community-based services. What I brought away from this conference is that Tennessee is not alone in experiencing a surge in our numbers of older adults and people with disabilities.
 
As a nation and as a state, we are no longer preparing for a historic demographic shift—we are in it. We are deeply immersed in the opportunities, challenges, realities, and necessities of a society with a rapidly growing number of older and disabled adults.
 
For those of you that have not met me, I was appointed last year by Governor Bill Lee to lead the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability (TCAD).

Since starting my tenure, through conversations with stakeholders, it is apparent to me that we can be doing more for the populations we serve. In light of this, it is great to have Council Executive Director, Lauren Pearcy, serve as a member on our Commission. Her insight and point of view from the disability space is an integral voice as we look at priorities for our agency.
 
Over 20 years ago, the State created the OPTIONS for Community Living Program to serve older Tennesseans and adults with disabilities that do not qualify for Medicaid long-term care services.
 
Today, the program serves thousands of people across the state and helps Tennesseans remain in their homes around their family, friends, and community they know and love.
 
TCAD administers the OPTIONS program through our nine Area Agencies on Aging and Disability (AAAD) that are spread out across the state. AAADs are the single point of entry for all our programs and can provide information and assistance on a case-by-case basis.
 
In his Fiscal Year 2023 proposed budget, Governor Lee put forward an additional $11.6 million for the OPTIONS program. This additional funding will double the current size of the program, giving TCAD the ability to serve more Tennesseans and ensure we have a competitive work force to care for those who need our services.
 
Ensuring the independence of our aging and disabled populations is one of our top priorities at TCAD and it’s an honor to be an integral part in serving these communities.

If you or someone you know needs assistance through OPTIONS, contact your local AAAD for enrollment, or use the Statewide Toll-Free Line: 1-866-836-6678.

I am encouraged by the progress we are making in expanding programs and developing new systems in our space, and I hope you will join me in looking ahead to the future as our populations continue to grow.


March 2022

View original email here

From the Executive Director's Desk

Dear readers,
 
One of the highlights of my career has been learning about and working on the issue of adult-size changing tables. This is an issue I knew absolutely nothing about just a few years ago. The day member Chrissy Hood was appointed to the Council is the day everything changed. As soon as she told her story about the need for adult-size changing tables in public places, the Council’s staff, members, and community partners got to work. This month, we've seen several years of that work start coming together. The bill expanding access to adult-size tables is moving through key committees in the Tennessee legislature. We also celebrated the Adventure Science Center’s new table with a ribbon cutting on Tuesday. Changing systems and policies is often slow and painstaking, so witnessing this kind of momentum feels extraordinary.

The reason I call this one of the highlights of my career (which I do not say lightly) is because of the way real citizens are leading it, with Tennesseans from all different backgrounds coming together. Legislators, state agencies, private businesses, and hundreds of citizens have stepped up to be part of addressing this issue. We all talk about teamwork, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.

No matter what happens this legislative session with the bill, Tennessee will never be the same. Adult-size changing tables are something we think about now. As the bill’s sponsor, Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), said last week, “I check for a table every place I go now.” He went on to share that Pulaski installed a table in the town rec center. This is how our communities change. It’s a thrill to be part of it.

Join us by reading more about the Council here and reaching out.

Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

Grow your leadership skills! Apply for Partners in Policymaking before March 31

  • Are you a person with a developmental disability?
  • Are you a parent/guardian/family member of someone with a developmental disability or other combined disabilities?
  • Would you like to work for real change for people with disabilities in your community and the state?

Then our Partners in Policymaking® program may be what you need!  Partners in Policymaking® is the Council’s free leadership and advocacy training program for adults with disabilities and family members of people with disabilities.  We’ve provided this 7-month series since 1993. Hundreds of graduates have gone on to do big things all across Tennessee.
You’ll learn from state and national experts on topics like:

  • Disability services and how to access them
  • New and innovative programs and ideas
  • Disability polices and practices and how they affect our lives 
  • Storytelling and media skills

The next class will run from September 2022 – April 2023.  Most classes will be virtual, with the possibility of opening and closing the class in person. 
We especially want to reach:

  • people with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • people of color
  • dads/brothers/grandfathers
  • folks outside of Middle TN

For more information and to apply, visit our website.

Subscribe to the Council's free magazine, Breaking Ground

We're finalizing our annual arts issue of Breaking Ground, the Council's quarterly print magazine. We can't wait for you to see the beautiful works we'll be featuring from Tennessee artists with disabilities and their family members! It's one of our favorite ways to celebrate our disability community every year.

Not subscribed to Breaking GroundThere is still time for you to sign up here! You can get print copies of Breaking Ground mailed to you (including multiple copies, if you would like to have extras to share), edit your email subscription to get the magazine by email, or receive a Braille copy by mail.

Free Virtual Sibling Workshops hosted by the Council and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

TN Adult Brothers and Sisters (TABS) is a statewide information and support network for siblings of people with disabilities. TABS is led by the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

The group meets monthly virtually to connect and learn from one another, and meetings often include guest speakers. TABS chats are free, informal, and confidential spaces to discuss issues that siblings of people with disabilities are experiencing. Siblings outside TN are welcome, too. Visit the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center events calendar to see and register for upcoming meetings.

Be in the Know: Newsletters We're Reading

If you have a developmental disability or love someone who does, you know: there's always more to learn. How do you track it all and stay up-to-date on issues and programs that matter?

In celebration of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, we're offering our pro list of the best newsletters to follow. (We admit we're biased: Each of these agencies is a member of our Council!) These are newsletters we read religiously to stay up-to-date on current news and information for people with developmental disabilities in Tennessee.

If this list feels overwhelming, don't worry: You don't have to read them all! Pick the issues or services that matter most to you. This Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and always, we're firm believers that there is nothing more powerful than well-informed self-advocates and families to create lasting change. 

Follow the links below to subscribe:


February 2022

Original link to email

From the Executive Director's Desk

Dear readers,
 
I am excited to share a few highlights about our work this month:
 
On Monday, February 14, we presented our budget to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee. You can watch on this link; we begin at the 1 hour 6 minute timestamp. You can download a copy of the materials we shared (PDF). (Click here to download a text-only version).

To read more about the Council’s core work, see:

  1. Tennessee Disability Pathfinder’s new website, now integrated into the state’s official app, MyTN.gov
  2. 5 year state plan
  3. Annual Report 2022

Tomorrow, February 18, we are officially welcoming three new Council members who were appointed by Governor Lee at the end of last year with “new member orientation.” These new members are:

  1. Kezia Cox, East Tennessee Development District
  2. Will Edwards, East Tennessee Development District
  3. Diamond Grigsby, Member At-Large

All of our members will come together at our next meeting, scheduled for February 25. All of our meetings are public. You can find information about our meetings on the Council’s website. We hope to see you there!

Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

New Council Members Appointed by Governor Bill Lee: Kezia Cox, Will Edwards and Diamond Grigsby

Keiza Cox lives in Knoxville, TN and has been appointed to our Council by Gov. Lee to represent the East Tennessee Development District. Kezia works at the University of Tennessee Medical Center as an Environmental Services Assistant. She graduated from the Project SEARCH internship program hosted at the hospital. (Read more about that program below!) She is also involved with the statewide self-advocacy organization People First of Tennessee, coordinated by The Arc Tennessee. Kezia feels passionate about disability advocacy, enjoys public speaking, and loves giving back to her community.

Will Edwards lives in Knoxville, TN and has been appointed to our Council by Gov. Lee to represent the East Tennessee Development District. Will and his wife Becca have two children, Brayden and Benton. Benton is autistic. Will is an attorney at Long, Ragsdale and Waters. He also serves as a governor-appointed member of the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder, President of Ronald McDonald Charities of Knoxville, and Director of Project Gabriel. He’s invested in improving education and employment for Tennesseans with disabilities.

Diamond Grigsby lives in Murfreesboro, TN and has been appointed to our Council by Gov. Lee as a member-at-large. Diamond is a 2018 graduate of the Next Steps at Vanderbilt University inclusive higher education program. She is a 2021 graduate of the Council’s Partners in Policymaking ® Leadership Institute. Diamond works at Ashley HomeStore as a retail support specialist on their guest response team. She is a co-owner of Plant for A Change, a native plant business, where she is also Chief Sales Manager. Diamond became involved in disability advocacy through the statewide self-advocacy organization People First of Tennessee, coordinated by The Arc Tennessee. She enjoys legislative advocacy and speaking up about issues that she cares about, like affordable housing, healthcare, and entrepreneurship for people with disabilities.

Council Member Brigham Scallion Helps Launch TN's First Inclusive Community College Program

You might have seen the news that the TN Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is giving money to 4 colleges to increase access to inclusive higher education. The name of this grant program is Tennessee Believes.

Dyersburg State Community College is one of the 4 schools getting a TN Believes grant. Brigham Scallion, our Council member from Bells, TN, is a professor of biology there. He has a teenage daughter, Alayna, who has Down syndrome. Brigham was key to getting an inclusive higher education program started on his campus.

We asked him some questions about why he was passionate about helping Dyersburg State get involved in the inclusive higher education movement.

Council: You’ve been a professor at Dyersburg State Community College for some time. When did you first start thinking about the need for your school to offer an inclusive program for students with intellectual disabilities? Why is this important to you?

Brigham: I started to think about this about a few years before I joined the Council.  My oldest child attends a university that has an inclusive program. She mentioned on several occasions the opportunity our Alayna would have to attend college. I remember having the thought, “That’s cool. Why don’t we have one of these at Dyersburg State?” 

When I joined the Council, I was introduced to others involved in inclusive higher education programs. With their encouragement, I moved forward to begin the discussion with Dyersburg State Community College. This is important to me as a parent of child with Down Syndrome.

In addition, there are people in our community that need this opportunity.  There are currently no inclusive programs at community colleges in Tennessee.  It is important to me because I have taught and been a part of students’ educational lives for years now, some of whom meet the definition for "intellectual or developmental disabilities."  This new program will bring together resources for this specific group, which will allow us to serve them better.  This program will also allow us to serve students we have not been equipped to serve in the past.

How did you take the first steps to advocating for an inclusive higher education program?

Honestly, being in the right place at the right time.  Anyone that works at a community college in the state of Tennessee is in the right place today. Within months of joining the Council, I was introduced to Elise McMillan (Vanderbilt Kennedy Center) and Tammy Day (Next Steps at Vanderbilt), and this is where the conversation began.  I had no idea how to approach a project like this.  They introduced me to others, gave me contacts, and invited me to meet with other inclusive program directors. 

How has the Council supported you in that process?  

This wouldn’t have progressed without the Council.  It has been contacts through the Council which allowed me to meet with leaders of inclusive programs. Attending meetings and getting involved with the Council led me to folks who helped get this started.

In short, this would not be taking place if it were not for the Council.

What has surprised you during your involvement with developing the Eagle Access Program?

I have been surprised at the overwhelming response I received from the Dyersburg State Community College administration, faculty, and staff.  It has been reassuring to have conversations with so many that are employed at Dyersburg State who are touched by disability in all forms.

What have you learned?

This should have been done sooner; however, it takes work and friends that have advocacy experience.  This would not have happened without connections made through the Council. I have also learned community colleges have served students that fall into this category in the past and currently.  An official program and specialty disability staff/educators will allow us to serve these students better. We need these at more community colleges across our state.

Tell us more about Eagle Access. Who is eligible, and how can students and families find more information?

The program will serve students between the ages of 18 and 29.  We will work with TN Department of Human Services' Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services to determine eligibility. Dyersburg State is forming an advisory board for the program that will serve as point of contact and help with community outreach. Students or families who are interested can contact me or the Vice President of the college for info.

What advice do you have for someone who might want to advocate for a similar program at their local college or university? 

Begin by contacting the Council and sharing your ideas. Ask for help. With this project, I have yet to find a need that someone in the state doesn’t want to help with. That help, in my experience, came from contacts I made through the Council. Contact programs like the one you want to start. Some of the most inspiring conversations I have had were with other program directors who have a passion for this field.  Talking to people who started a program or run a program will save you time and wasted effort.

Learn about all of TN's inclusive higher education programs.

New Video: Bryshawn's Story (Getting Help through the Employment and Community First CHOICES Program for Tennesseans with Disabilities)

Most mornings, you’ll find Bryshawn Jemison working out at Planet Fitness before work. In the evenings, you might find him making noodles and chicken and cleaning his apartment, with help from his assistant and friend, Tim.

Bryshawn gets support for a very full life through Employment and Community First CHOICES – Tennessee’s program for home and community based services.

“All these services help me live on my own and have the life I want.”

We’ll be sharing more information in the next few weeks about Employment and Community First CHOICES. Follow along to learn more – including details about new openings in the program. These services help people with I/DD grow their independence and work toward their goals. The services can take a lot of weight off the shoulders of family members who are supporting a loved one with I/DD.

Want to apply for services? Click here to fill out the online application.

Project SEARCH at VUMC Celebrates 100 Hires

Project SEARCH at Vanderbilt University Medical Center just hit a huge milestone!  A young lady participating in this year's cohort was just offered employment. That makes her the 100th hire from the program.

Since 2005, 117 people have graduated from the program, and 100 of these individuals have achieved employment, resulting in an 85% success rate for the program. However, since 2016, 97% of graduates have achieved successful employment (as identified by Project SEARCH). That means all jobs have been:

  • In an integrated setting
  • Making a prevailing wage
  • Non-seasonal employment
  • Working 16 hrs/week or more

To learn more about this international job placement program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, visit the Project SEARCH website. 

Read our 2019 article about the Council's role in bringing Project SEARCH to TN, and how we have helped expand Project SEARCH to more than 17 sites.

If you know of a business in your community that would like to explore hosting Project SEARCH interns, contact Vocational Rehabilitation Transition Director Blake Shearer with the TN Dept. of Human Services at: Blake.A.Shearer@tn.gov.

We asked Brandon Pflug, Project SEARCH instructor at VUMC, to share more info with us about this exciting milestone.

Council: You mentioned that these outcomes make Project SEARCH at VUMC one of the most successful Project SEARCH sites in the nation (and world!). What do you think are the keys to VUMC’s success (even beyond the Project SEARCH model itself)?  

Brandon Pflug, VUMC Project SEARCH Instructor: The reason that Project SEARCH at VUMC is so successful is because of the support and buy-in from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.  The medical center partners with us to provide all internships and is a champion for the program and our individuals.

We are also very fortunate to have access to 40+ departments/clinics to provide this training. It is clear that VUMC makes diversity and inclusion intentional. We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to train within their facilities!

What would you like to see happen for Project SEARCH at VUMC in the next few years? What does it look like to build on this success?

We would like to see Project SEARCH at VUMC continue to grow in the next few years.  At this time, we partner with the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, The Vanderbilt Clinic, Vanderbilt University Hospital, Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks, Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, and Vanderbilt University to provide internships and facilitate employment.

We are hoping to expand our base of internships and would like to be able to offer training in additional departments and facilities in the future. 

Council: What advice do you have for other employers about participation with Project SEARCH?​

Brandon: Hiring an Intern/Project SEARCH Graduate is a sound business investment!  On average, the length of service for graduates from Project SEARCH at VUMC is 7+ years!

I would encourage any manager or business to consider hiring a Project SEARCH graduate. You will gain a dedicated employee who will bring so much to the business/department for years to come. I would also encourage anyone who is having difficulty filling or retaining positions within their company/department to contact the program. Our individuals already have the services in place to come into your business, learn a job, receive coaching and training from our staff to increase efficiency, and access supports to navigate the new-hire process.

To contact the VUMC program, email me at Brandon Pflug at brandon.pflug@vumc.org. You can also post in our Facebook group, Project SEARCH at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In Their Own Words: Project SEARCH Graduates

 Tell us about your experience with Project SEARCH

  • “I loved being in Project SEARCH.” - Rinetta Taylor, hired 05/2008
  • “It’s been a long time since I was there, but I liked it. It helped me get this job. I love my job.  I can and will help out in any way in can. I love my coworkers, staff, and management.” - Morgan Smith, hired 10/2009

What does having a real job with real wages mean to you?

  • "I really like getting paid." - Jennifer Kovach, hired 05/2018
  • “I feel that getting paid is a reward for my contributing to the community and to have my efforts acknowledged.” - Shane Smith, hired 11/2021

January 2022

Original link to email

From the Executive Director's Desk

Hi everyone,
 
I am so proud to be writing this community as Executive Director of the Council on Developmental Disabilities. About 10 days in, my biggest takeaway is the strength of the team here at the Council. Did you know that many of our team members have been with us for more than 15 years? I’m equally as proud that several of us have joined the Council in the past 5 years, giving our team a mix of strong institutional knowledge and fresh eyes with new ideas. This is the context in which we developed our new 5 Year State Plan. You can expect our work to stay consistent with that plan. We’ll be building on what you have seen from us in the past. Behind the curtain, our team will continue to grow a strong team culture in a virtual environment. If any of our readers have tips for virtual team building, we welcome your advice!
 
My hope for this year is that we will see major progress on adult-size changing tables, which is our top legislative priority, led by citizen Council members. I would also have you look for the first public report on the TN Center for Decision-Making Support, which was launched last year with the Council’s funding and leadership. The impact that Center has made in less than a year is incredible. That includes the state’s first reversal of an unneeded conservatorship, with supported decision-making put in place instead. (Read more in Jen Cook's own words below!) Finally, I would direct everyone to check out the new TN Disability Pathfinder website. Pathfinder’s website was upgraded last year, with support from us and 5 other state agencies. This kind of partnership is unprecedented. And our investment is just getting started! We are on a path to significantly upgrade how Tennesseans find disability resources and services.

I hope reading about those highlights makes you as excited as they make me. We would not be working on any of these areas without your stories, insights, and support. Keep them coming – our power comes from your engagement with us.
 
Onward!
Lauren Pearcy, Executive Director

Council Member Spotlight: Sharing Stories of Need for Adult-Size Changing Tables

Our Council members are educating their state legislators and the public on the need for adult-size changing tables in public spaces. A Universal Changing Tables bill is right now before the TN legislature to consider this session.

This is the Council's top policy priority because member Chrissy Hood first brought it to our attention shortly after she was appointed to the Council.

Since then, Chrissy has shared her story many times with state legislators and others all across the state. Other members of our Council have joined her efforts, advocating at the state and local levels.

Here are a few highlights of the impact our members are having on this issue:

If this issue is important to you, contact your Tennessee representatives to share your story! Visit our changing tables web page for more information. 

Access 2030: Improving Accessibility in Our State Parks

Tennessee State Parks are beautiful places where nature remains unspoiled, historic sites are preserved, and the scenery is often breathtaking. 30 million people go to a Tennessee State Park every year to enjoy these magnificent places. Unfortunately, not everyone can easily enjoy our parks. Unintentional, yet real, barriers prevent people from experiencing what these special places have to offer.  
 
If Tennessee State Parks are to serve all Tennesseans, it must identify barriers and remove them. 
 
Access 2030 is a new Tennessee State Parks’ program seeking to do just that. The program is led by a Steering Committee representing agencies across state government: TN Dept. of Environment and Conservation, The Department of General Services, Health, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and the Council on Developmental Disabilities. These members serve as coaches, consultants, and advocates for the Access 2030 vision: “To have the most accessible state park system in the nation by 2030.”
 
Access 2030 includes 7 projects to identify and remove barriers. Here is a quick list of those projects:

  • Park Accessibility addresses physical barriers. This project sets ADA compliance as a starting point and builds on it. The goal is to make all Tennessee State Parks more accessible to people with physical disabilities.
  • Model Park seeks to make Henry Horton State Park a model accessible park. That park will be a place where people from around the state can stay and play. The park may also serve as a place to try out new accessibility ideas. 
  • Telling Full Stories is an effort to break down the barrier of exclusivity. Sometimes stories, particularly at historic sites, are told from a single perspective. This project will seek to make sure all perspectives represented by the history are told in park stories.
  • Bureau Diversity is included in Access 2030 because diversity brings new perspectives and belonging for our staff. To attract more diverse park visitors, we need more diverse park staff.
  • Seasonal Interpretative Ranger (SIR) Diversity is a special project to create more diversity in the parks’ SIR program. SIRs are young people working in parks during the summer. They often choose a park career when they finish school. As a “feeder” program, a more diverse SIR program will lead to more diverse park staff.
  • Programming seeks to partner with schools to get students into the parks and natural areas. This program eliminates barriers such as limited curriculum and lack of transportation. This allows students who may have never been to a park to have an experience with nature.
  • WOW Moments will use technology to give more people the opportunity to experience some remarkable moments in our parks. Virtual reality and augmented reality will transport people to places and times they could not otherwise go. 

The next great opportunity for our parks is to make them accessible to more of our citizens. With the help of our many committee members, such as the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities, we are surely on our way. Let’s get this done!

- Jim Bryson, Deputy Commissioner, Bureau of Parks and Conservation, TN Department of Environment and Conservation

"The openness and excitement of the TN Parks staff surrounding accessibility for people with disabilities and their families was refreshing and encouraging. The Parks staff asked great questions, listened intently to our responses, and then navigated the park with us to actually see what we experience. We learned a lot from each other and look forward to the chance to spend more time in the parks across the state as they become more accessible over the next few years!! So thankful!" -- Council Member Alison Bynum, who joined a meeting with the TN State Parks team at Radnor Lake State Park, along with daughter Charlotte

 

Ending my Conservatorship

by Jennifer R. Cook with help from Elisa Hertzan, Esq.

My name is Jennifer Ruth Cook and I’m a thirty-seven-year old Tennessean with a mild intellectual disability. As a Britney Spears fan, I followed the #FreeBritney case and discovered that Britney and I had a lot in common. We’re both December babies, we love music, and we both had conservators. A conservator is someone appointed by a judge to make decisions on behalf of someone who is found to be disabled by the court. Conservators make decisions about where the disabled person lives, works, and even how they spend their free time and money. 

I receive services through the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Ever since I can remember, I have had a conservator. Despite the conservatorship, I’ve always led a busy life.  I work as a cleaner at UT Hospital in Knoxville. I love going with friends to the movies, to Lady Vols games, and eating at Austin’s Pizza. With support from D&S staff (my service provider), I’ve learned to advocate for myself. I recently asked for more unsupervised time in the community and got it! I’m also learning how to take the bus to work. 

Cindy Gardner, Esq., my conservator, has watched my progress. Together we agreed that it was time to end my conservatorship. Elisa Hertzan, a lawyer at Disability Rights Tennessee, agreed to represent me.

The hearing was conducted by Chancellor Fleenor, a judge at the Hamilton County Probate Court. Cindy told the judge about the progress I had made. D&S staff told the judge that I was great at advocating for myself and that with help, I could make my own decisions. My lawyer gave the Court a medical report from the doctor saying that despite my disability, I could make my own decisions.  

I testified, too. I was nervous about talking to the Chancellor, but she was warm and friendly. The Chancellor asked me why I wanted to end the conservatorship. I told her that I was ready to make my own decisions with help from my D&S support team.

I got the Christmas present I wanted. On December 22, 2021, the court entered an order ending my conservatorship! I knew just how great Britney Spears must have felt when she won her case! My next big decision is planning and budgeting for a beach vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

I hope my experience provides hope to all Tennesseans who want to end their conservatorships. Believe in yourself and advocate for your right to make your own decisions. Help is available. I encourage you and your support team to contact Disability Rights Tennessee at (615) 298-1080 and the Tennessee Center for Decision-Making Support at (615) 248-5878 ext. 322, ds@thearctn.org. They can help you with supported decision-making tools and advice on ending your conservatorship. 

New Video: Lydia's Story: Person-centered support in action

Featuring Interviews from TN's Vocational Rehabilitation and Next Steps at Vanderbilt programs

Lydia Young dreams of working in the fashion industry. She is taking real steps toward that dream, with support from Vocational Rehabilitation and Next Steps at Vanderbilt. Julie Johnson, Vocational Rehabilitation Director, knows that teamwork is key: "We want the person to be at the center...of everything we do. We're all working together to serve that purpose." Our Council funded person-centered training for all Vocational Rehabilitation staff to make sure every person with a disability can get the support they need to pursue their own career dreams.