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Breaking Ground 102 - Learning about Disability Policy Will Make Me a Better Special Ed Teacher: Thoughts from a Council Intern

By Lauren McCabe

Lauren McCabe received her M.Ed. and B.S. in Special Education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, with specific interests in high school and postsecondary-aged people with intellectual disability at the school-based and public policy levels.

This past year, I have been grateful to be the public policy intern with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities under Public Policy Director Lauren Pearcy. This experience increased my understanding and appreciation for all the committed people working at the state level to ensure Tennesseans with disabilities and their families have the opportunity to live the lives they choose.

My interest in disability policy came from my experiences as a peer mentor with Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the inclusive higher education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I saw how the Higher Education Opportunities Act and other systems paved the way to higher education for these students who wanted a college experience. The power of policy to transform opportunities for people with disabilities moved and inspired me.

From my experiences with Next Steps, I decided to study special education at Vanderbilt. My education focused specifically on students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities. I especially focused on older students and post-secondary adults. I wanted to increase my knowledge of disability policy, and the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities was the perfect fit. Through this internship, I had the opportunity to learn about disability policy work at the statewide level through many hands-on and research experiences.

I am thankful for the numerous shadowing opportunities Lauren Pearcy provided me during legislative sessions, policy workgroups, and Disability Day on the Hill activities. These hands-on experiences gave me a real look into the whole “team” of people it takes to develop effective policies.

In my experiences with members of the Council, I was grateful for their willingness to share their successes and challenges with the disability service system. Pairing a disability policy issue with a real person and story motivates us to create effective policies that solve problems. There are many personal stories of experiences with the special education system, accessible transportation, supported decision-making, and voting accessibility that I will carry with me into my professional future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also created an interesting new layer to disability policy. It has opened my eyes to how important it is that the voices of people with disabilities are heard when responding to nationwide challenges.

My main research project while interning with the Council was working on their Comprehensive Review and Analysis (CR&A). The CR&A is one of the most critical functions of State Councils, required by the Developmental Disabilities Act of 2000. It is a snapshot of state disability systems and the services they provide to people with disabilities - typically the only analysis of its kind. For each Tennessee state department, I researched if and how their programs support people with disabilities, statewide.

I was able to look deeper into programs I am more familiar with and to research programs that are new to me. I believe many professionals are not aware of the programs and services at the state level that support people with disabilities and their families. When I first began my internship, one of my goals was to better understand how state government supports people with disabilities. This project helped me reach that goal.

After I graduate with my Master’s in Education in Special Education from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College in May, I hope to return home to the Chicago area to carry out my passion for working with older students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and teach high school special education. My interest and work in policy will certainly not stop after my internship ends. I believe it will only grow as I work with my students and their families in preparing them for their next step beyond high school.

The immense knowledge, hands-on experiences, and individual relationships formed with Council members and staff will greatly impact my ability to provide my students the education and preparation they deserve. I highly recommend that future special educators and disability professionals expose themselves to the disability policy world. This will help us escape some of the silos we sometimes find ourselves in and instead create a system of collaboration and understanding.

Even if you are not someone who is directly developing public policy, disability policy issues impact all other areas of the disability service system. I am very thankful to the Council and, in particular, Lauren Pearcy for helping me improve my ability to support and advocate for students within the special education and greater disability service system.

Lauren McCabe and Council Public Policy Director Lauren Pearcy in front of the Council’s office
Lauren McCabe and Council Public Policy Director Lauren Pearcy in front of the Council’s office