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Breaking Ground 106 Introduction

Building a Path of Opportunity

Wanda Willis, Executive Director, TN Council on Developmental Disabilities

Since 1975, federal law has said students with disabilities must be educated with their peers in our public schools. But what about college? That was the question brought to me more than 15 years ago by two passionate moms. A college education was not accessible to many students with disabilities – especially those with intellectual disabilities.

So, the Council did what it does best: We brought partners together, learned about the issue, and took steps to innovate. In 2010, we funded our state’s first inclusive higher education program, Next Steps at Vanderbilt. Next Steps is now a nationally recognized program for students with intellectual disabilities.  

Over the next six years, the Council led efforts to fund inclusive higher education programs in Tennessee. Today, Tennessee has 6 programs serving students with intellectual disabilities:

The Council continues to be an active member of the statewide Inclusive Higher Education Alliance (read more later in this issue) where organizations gather to support and promote these programs across the state. Data from the Alliance proves that graduates of these programs have much higher rates of employment and independence than students who do not attend a college program.

The Council is proud to continue the work to grow inclusive higher education in our state.  New partners in this work have exciting news about plans for growth. The future for Tennessee students with disabilities has never been brighter.

Tennessee Believes

Brad Turner, Commissioner, TN Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

As Commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of people we support across Tennessee and hear their stories. They want the same things we all do: a home of their own, friends, hobbies, and a job with a real paycheck. DIDD is here to provide access and opportunities for people to reach their goals.

As my daughter enters her teenage years, transition is more and more on my mind. Thanks to the hard work of the past 15 years, inclusive higher education options at colleges across the state give my daughter and her friends more options than ever before. I have seen firsthand how these programs prepare students for the workforce and independent living. That has motivated me to think of how we at DIDD can further that work.

We are excited to launch Tennessee Believes in the coming months. In partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, we will provide grants to grow inclusive higher education across the state. We hope this funding will help expand and improve current programs and create new ones.

For too long, college seemed out of reach for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Now, it’s a reality for hundreds across Tennessee. DIDD is excited to be a part of that continued work.

Growth that Benefits Us All

Emily House, Executive Director, Tennessee Higher Education Commission

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) is relentlessly focused on increasing the number of Tennesseans who continue their education after high school. We joke that, as a state agency, “no one graduates from THEC!”  The staff keep students at the center of all decisions, policies, and programs. We often talk about student subgroups and the best ways to meet diverse student needs. One critical subgroup is students with disabilities.

I am so proud of the work our schools do to create inclusive campuses and academic and extracurricular activities that welcome all students. Thanks to the support of the Council and partners, this work is front and center at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, the University of Memphis, and East Tennessee State University, as well as at many of our private university partners.

I am thrilled that THEC is partnering with Commissioner Brad Turner and the Tennessee Department of Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities to expand inclusive higher education across Tennessee. Higher education is for everyone. Options must exist to meet the needs of all students. This inclusive approach contributes to the well-being of all students and their families.  And that means we’re better meeting the needs of Tennessee’s communities and local economies.

Inclusive higher education is the path to the future we all want, of opportunity and growth for ourselves and our communities.