After 28 years of working to improve the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families, Elise McMillan, J.D., has announced she will retire from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) in June 2023. McMillan currently serves as the director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD), director of Community Engagement and Public Policy team, and senior lecturer in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.
During her time at Vanderbilt, McMillan has had an extraordinary influence on the development of model evidence-based services for individuals with IDD and their families on a community, state, and national level. She has helped to expand opportunities and improve systems, especially in the areas of transition, inclusive higher education, and employment.
Prior to her leadership role in the VKC UCEDD, McMillan was a career journalist, who rose to Managing Editor, then Associate Editor and General Counsel of the Nashville Banner newspaper. After the birth of her middle son, who has Down syndrome, she was contacted by former VKC director of Communications Jan Rosemergy, Ph.D. One of McMillan’s first actions, alongside her husband Tom, was to connect with the VKC for early intervention and research participation. She was also invited by the VKC director to become part of the Center’s community Leadership Council. In 1995, she joined the VKC.
McMillan was part of the team that competed for and secured the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities for VU and the VKC in 2005. UCEDDs are funded by the federal Administration for Community Living (ACL). McMillan has remained in a leadership position with the UCEDD since that time.
“With Elise’s leadership, the VKC UCEDD has grown and expanded providing much needed information about the abilities and supports needed for people with disabilities,” said Doria Panvini, founding chair of the VKC UCEDD Community Advisory Council. “Through the development of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, employment initiatives, publications, collaborative meetings, summer camps, and so much more, Elise has helped to open doors for people with disabilities to be a part of their communities.”
As UCEDD director, McMillan has dramatically strengthened the connections among Center researchers, staff, and families; and has promoted the integration of research and training into services. She also is directly involved in the Center’s IDDRC and LEND programs, ensuring a “family-centered perspective” across all areas of the VKC.
McMillan’s contributions in inclusive higher education (IHE) are impressive. She was the founding faculty member of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the first IHE program in Tennessee. She partnered with the LDB Foundation and the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities to launch inclusive higher education in Tennessee. Additionally, McMillan worked with the DD Council, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, and The Arc of Williamson County to establish the Tennessee Alliance for Inclusive Higher Education, which works to expand IHE programs across the state. She is also a founding member of the new Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council, a new national accrediting agency for postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disability. She plans to continue her work with this group after retirement.
McMillan’s leadership has been invaluable in a range of VKC activities directed at improving the health and well-being of children and adults with IDD. She was instrumental in the founding of VUMC’s Down Syndrome Clinic, and her contributions to Project ECHO Reading have allowed distance training and tutoring in reading instruction for students with IDD, which has been a perfect opportunity to grow training, research, and service in this area. She has been a faculty leader in the development of the IDD Toolkit Project and the new Amerigroup Project ECHO to build the capacity of community clinicians to include adults with disabilities in their practices. She has been the faculty director of Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, partnering again with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and Pathfinder program director Megan Hart, M.Ed., in growing the project, which makes available information about services and supports for people with disabilities across Tennessee through a toll-free call center and website/database.
In 2012, McMillan and former Vanderbilt faculty member Erik Carter, Ph.D., secured an ACL systems change grant which led to the development of the TennesseeWorks Partnership and Transition Tennessee. She has worked with colleagues on a Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers (RRTC) focusing on supporting youths with disabilities, as well as their parents, as they transition into adulthood and begin to seek employment and adult services.
A skilled networker and collaborator, she has exceled at linking public and private entities together to pursue shared goals that benefit individuals with IDD. She has served as a board member and officer of many local, state, and national disability organizations. She is former Board president for The Arc US and has served on the boards and committees of The Arc Tennessee, Tennessee Title 33 Law Revision Commission, Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, Disability Rights Tennessee, and Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission.
McMillan is a regular attendee at the national Disability Policy Seminar, and each year she (sometimes with her family) meets with the Tennessee delegation. She has worked closely with both the Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Offices of Federal and State Relations to coordinate on key issues that affect individuals with disabilities and their families in the coming sessions.
In addition to her impactful leadership in the areas of policy and practice, she also has published widely in leading peer-reviewed journals across interdisciplinary fields. Indeed, she has had articles featured in journals like Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, The Journal of Special Education, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, and Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals.
McMillan also has been a mentor to countless faculty, staff, and trainees in the VKC. She has thoughtfully guided staff and students, supported families, and collaborated with disability organizations. She models respect for the highest aspirations of individuals with IDD and is an extraordinarily effective advocate for improving service systems across the lifespan. She is a member of the VUMC Executive Diversity Council and was one of the co-founders of the VUMC Disability Employee Resource Group.
“Elise has been a valuable member of our Child and Adolescent Psychiatry team, and we will miss her warm presence,” said Meg Benningfield, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “She has been a thoughtful partner in sharing resources, problem solving, and staying engaged with the work through challenging times. Her advocacy for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities has inspired us. We wish her all the best.”
McMillan was presented with the George S. Jesien Distinguished Achievement Award from AUCD, which recognizes individuals with a distinguished career of excellence and leadership to advance policy and practice for and with people living with developmental and other disabilities, their families, and communities. She also received the National Down Syndrome Congress Education Award and the AAIDD Service Award.
“Elise is the heart and soul of the VKC, completely embodying our fundamental mission to improve the lives of people with IDD and their families,” said Jeffrey Neul, M.D., Ph.D., Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair and director of the VKC. “Her leadership of the VKC UCEDD has been instrumental in the tremendous growth of our programs and activities, leading both to national recognition of excellence but importantly to meaningful impact on people and policies. Always a consummate networker and connector, compassionate champion, tireless worker, and true friend, her presence will be missed, but the legacy of her outstanding work will continue and provide the foundation for future success of the VKC UCEDD.”
Elise, a Texas native, and her husband Tom are parents of three and grandparents of six. Their family plans to remain active in the disability advocacy community. In addition to the IHEA Council, McMillan is also a board member of Our Place Nashville and the Hand in Hand Options Program of the Middle Tennessee Catholic Diocese.