Brad Turner, director of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, told a small audience Wednesday at Chattanooga State Community College that serving people with disabilities ends assumptions about what they can and cannot do. It starts with letting
Turner leads the state’s efforts to expand career and educational opportunities for young people with disabilities by partnering with colleges. He traveled to Chattanooga on Tuesday to speak with local educators and organizations.
“I am very proud to have the opportunity to advocate directly into government at the highest level to serve Tennessee people with disabilities,” Turner said.
In 2022, state legislators allocated $500,000 in a recurring grant called Tennessee Believes to the Office of Intellectually Disabled to increase the number of comprehensive higher education programs. The program includes four of her colleges and universities, including Tennessee State University. Tennessee State University was the first historically black university in the nation to offer programs specifically for individuals and students with disabilities, Turner said.
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The next grant has not yet been distributed, but Chattanooga State University hopes to develop a program for its campus.
“Our purpose is to support and empower everyone in our community to learn without limits,” said Rebecca Aslinger, assistant professor of early childhood education at Chattanooga State University. This is true as we are beginning to develop a new college program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with the full support of our community.”
Turner says one of the biggest barriers for people with disabilities is stereotypes, especially when it comes to education and careers.
“The really difficult thing for us is that companies are already thinking of jobs that people with disabilities can do, but more importantly things that they can’t do,” Turner said. I’m going to many of the companies in the world to change the narrative around the conversation and stop putting[disabled people]in a box.”
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Another barrier is transportation, and states are looking at ways to partner with local services to help people with disabilities get to work and school.
“Frankly, it’s an excuse for employers to say, ‘We can’t hire them because they can’t get the job,'” Turner said.
He added that Chattanooga is one of the most disability-friendly cities in the state.
“It’s something to be proud of,” Turner said.
From institutionalizing people with disabilities to providing services at the government level, Tennessee has come a long way in the past 40 years, says Turner.
“We had parents tell us a lot of these stories that they shared,” Turner said. They would drop them at the door or leave them for 40 years and never come back. Those are true stories.
Jim Frierson, whose daughter Anna Frierson has Down syndrome, said the state’s efforts were “radical.”
In an interview following Turner’s discussion, Freerson said, “It shows that we’ve left out a class of people, a demographic slice, in the debate about diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s a big deal.” said.
Anna is enrolled in Chattanooga’s Vocational Cookery Training Program for students with disabilities. Although she was too shy to comment, Frierson said it was a charming and welcoming program she loved.
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