Public Policy Update: VKC educates to advocate on employment, aging caregivers, and expansion of the STEP UP Scholarship

Members of the Employment First Task Force gathered to present the Expect Employment Report to Governor Bill Haslam. Photo courtesy office of Governor Haslam.

Highlights of 2016 educational advocacy efforts include the presentation of the Expect Employment report to Governor Haslam, lowering the age of primary caregiver eligibility for DIDD waivers from 80 to 75, and expanding TN STEP UP scholarships for 4-year college programs.

Report to Governor Haslam

In 2013, Governor Haslam signed Executive Order No. 28, establishing the Employment First Task Force in Tennessee. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC), along with other Tennessee Developmental Disabilities Network members and community partners, participated to support the commitment of state partnership agencies to increase integrated, competitive employment. For 3 years, members have met quarterly to work toward the goals established in the Executive Order. With a shared vision to increase employment for all Tennesseans with disabilities, workgroups have focused on the areas of policy, providers, individuals with disabilities and families, and data.

This year, the Task Force focused on refining and completing objectives from a strategic plan developed last year. Highlights from the 2016 report include:

  • Memorandum of Understanding for Youth Transition from School to Work
  • Combined State Plan for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
  • Employment and Community First CHOICES Program

Success stories were woven throughout the report. In his note, Governor Haslam wrote, “The individual success stories highlighted in this report bring the Task Force’s hard work to life. You will learn about the positive impact Tennesseans with disabilities are having in the places where they work.”

Governor Bill Haslam offers remarks during the Expect Employment Report presentation held at the Grand Ole Opry. Clancey Hopper far left. Photo by Kyle Jonas.

Governor Bill Haslam offers remarks during the Expect Employment Report presentation held at the Grand Ole Opry. Clancey Hopper far left. Photo by Kyle Jonas.

For Clancey Hopper, one of the individuals featured in the report, her job at the Grand Ole Opry is a dream come true, and the product of her hard work. Clancey was a participant in Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp, which connects people with Williams syndrome with researchers who study aspects of this syndrome, including an affinity for music. Through her ACM Lifting Lives connections, Clancey was able to secure a job at the Grand Ole Opry as a tour guide. Her gifts and strengths are used and her warm personality and immense knowledge of country music allow her to shine.

The Grand Ole Opry provided an inspiring backdrop for the Expect Employment report presentation to the Governor on October 13. Prior to the presentation, Clancey gave Governor Haslam a tour of the Grand Ole Opry, culminating in a serenade of “Delta Dawn” on the main stage. The Task Force intends to build on the work it has already accomplished and take advantage of building momentum as it starts to develop a new strategic plan to guide its work for the next 3 years. Thousands of Tennesseans with disabilities want to work, and this Task Force must support them in making their employment dreams a reality.

Click here to read the 2016 Expect Employment Report:

Click here to watch a video on the presentation to Governor Haslam:

Aging Caregiver Law amended

In 2015, the General Assembly passed the Aging Caregiver law, which required the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to enroll all eligible people on the waiting list with custodial parents or caregivers 80 years and older into the Self-Determination Waiver or similarly capped waiver. Administered by TennCare and managed by AmeriGroup, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, and United Healthcare, Tennessee offers various waiver programs to provide Home- and Community-Based Services to qualified individuals. Because the average life expectancy in Tennessee is 76 years of age, efforts to lower the caregiver age of eligibility for waivers to 75 took place in 2016.

The VKC’s Kindred Stories of Disability project, in partnership with The Arc Tennessee, collected stories from families that highlighted the experiences of aging caregivers that were then shared with legislators and policymakers as they considered the change to the law. The stories illustrated the stress on aging parents caring for a loved one with an intellectual disability, especially as their own health concerns compromise their ability to provide adequate support.

One mother explains: “Shaun’s father recently had a stroke. He’s doing well, but that really brings the future closer. So far, I’m very healthy, but I know in a minute that could change. The older you get, the more you recognize that. I just want Shaun to be happy. He’s lucky that he has a brother and a sister to lean on, but you never know what their health is going to be as they age. I need Shaun to end up somewhere where he is content and happy. I know that doesn’t always happen for our sons and daughters with disabilities, and I worry about the time when I won’t be here to make sure he is okay.”

Sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron and Representative Bob Ramsey, and signed into effect this year by Governor Haslam, the law now requires enrollment of any person on the intellectual disabilities waiting list if the person’s primary caregiver is 75 years of age or older.

To read more family stories on the topic of aging, visit:

STEP UP Scholarship now available for 4-year programs

Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are enrolled in inclusive higher education programs in Tennessee and who meet certain requirements have been eligible for the STEP UP Scholarship since 2013. However, as some programs in Tennessee expand from 2-years to 4-years, an amendment went before the Legislature this year that would allow eligible students to receive the STEP UP scholarship for up to 4 years.

In addition to efforts by disability organizations like The Arc Tennessee, Tennessee Disability Coalition, and the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance, Next Steps at Vanderbilt students wrote to and met with their legislators to share how participation in a postsecondary education program has improved their quality of life and job prospects. One student even explored the topic of the scholarship’s expansion for his end-of-year Capstone project.

“The importance of the STEP UP legislation is that it puts Tennessee students with intellectual disabilities on a par with their neighbors and colleagues,” said Cynthia Cyrus, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education. “The academic experience, job readiness, and social skills that are integral to the Next Steps program–and its sister programs at Knoxville, Memphis and Lipscomb–make a profound difference in the life of the participants. Funding from the Lottery scholarships will broaden access to these programs for those Tennessee individuals who stand to benefit the most.”

Expanded programs means expanded opportunities for students and the universities they attend. Senator Doug Overbey and Representative Bob Ramsey sponsored the amendment, which was enacted as Public Chapter on April 27, 2016.

To learn more about the STEP UP Scholarship, visit:

Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communications and Dissemination.
Rachael Jenkins is dissemination program coordinator for TennesseeWorks.

Pictured top of page: Members of the Employment First Task Force gathered to present the Expect Employment Report to Governor Bill Haslam. Photo courtesy office of Governor Haslam.

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