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Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities Executive Director Receives Lifetime Achievement Award, Disability Network Recognized

Monday, November 26, 2018 | 04:02pm
photo of 3 women and 1 man; pictured from left to right - Elise McMillan of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Bruce Keisling of Boling Center, Wanda Willis of TN Council on Developmental Disabilities, and Lisa Primm of Disability Rights TN

Pictured from left to right: Elise McMillan of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center; Bruce Keisling of the UT Boling Center, Wanda Willis of the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities; and Lisa Primm of Disability Rights TN.

Wanda Willis, Executive Director of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, was recently honored at the national Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) conference with their Lifetime Achievement Award. This prestigious national award is given annually to an outstanding leader in the disability field to recognize dedication to people with developmental disabilities and their families.

The Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities is a state agency that improves policies and practices that impact Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Private citizens who are Tennesseans with disabilities and family members of Tennesseans with disabilities from across the state are appointed by the Governor to represent the interests and needs of people with disabilities.

Ms. Willis has been Executive Director of the Tennessee Council since 1991, spearheading systems change initiatives in housing, employment, health, and other vital areas, including launching the Tennessee Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute for family members and people with disabilities. Under her leadership, the Council also created an innovative leadership academy to train employees across state government in best practices in the disability field in partnership with the Department of Human Resources, the Leadership Academy for Excellence in Disability Services. Before becoming Executive Director, Ms. Willis served as the Director of Planning for the State's developmental disabilities agency from 1986 to 1991 and the administrator for community intellectual disability services in Tennessee from 1977-1986.

“Throughout her career, Wanda has worked diligently to bring the Developmental Disabilities Act to life in our state, bringing together leaders, policy makers, and private citizens to improve services and raise expectations for Tennesseans with disabilities and their families,” Governor Bill Haslam said. “Under her leadership, Tennessee has been recognized nationally for our strong and effective partnerships among state agencies and community partners that serve people with disabilities.”

When accepting her Lifetime Achievement award, Ms. Willis invited the other leaders of Tennessee’s Developmental Disabilities Network to join her. Developmental Disabilities (“DD”) Networks exist in every state, comprised of three programs established by the Developmental Disabilities Act (originated from legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963): Councils on Developmental Disabilities, Protection and Advocacy Systems, University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Together, these organizations focus on improving the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and each have distinct but related missions that include conducting research and training, protecting rights of people with disabilities, and facilitating collaboration among people with disabilities, their families and policymakers.

Tennessee’s DD Network includes the Council, Disability Rights Tennessee, and two University Centers, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and the University of Tennessee Boling Center. In Tennessee, these programs partner extensively, serving on each other’s boards, meeting monthly and working jointly on projects to benefit Tennesseans with disabilities and families. The level of collaboration among Tennessee’s Developmental Disabilities Network has long been praised as a national model.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Willis focused on the importance of a strong Developmental Disabilities Network:

"The Developmental Disabilities Act is a masterpiece written by families of people with disabilities more than 50 years ago, who had the foresight to create these three complementary programs that each address a critical and otherwise unmet need for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There will always be a need for research and training; for advocacy and protection of rights; and for evaluating and improving our systems with all stakeholders at the table. The wisdom of the Developmental Disabilities Act is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.”

Ms. Willis is the second leader of the Tennessee Developmental Disabilities Network to be honored by AUCD recently. In 2014, Dr. Frederick Palmer, previous director of the UT Boling Center, received the George S. Jesien Distinguished Achievement Award for a career of excellence and leadership in advancing policy and practice for people with developmental disabilities.

Learn more about Tennessee’s DD Network


Learn more about the work of each of the DD Network agencies:

The Council on Developmental Disabilities has been a leader in improving policies and practices that affect the lives of Tennesseans with developmental disabilities for more than 40 years. Our work is driven by the priorities of Tennesseans and informed by national best practices. As a state agency, we carry out our work in close collaboration with other offices of state government. We also partner directly with private entities and communities to remove barriers to inclusion, facilitate citizen participation in public policy, and launch innovative projects that impact Tennesseans with disabilities.

For more information about citizens with developmental disabilities and their families in Tennessee, or the work of the Council, contact Communications Director Emma Shouse at 615-253-5368 or or visit