From Litigation to Leadership: How a Lawsuit Catalyzed Tennessee’s Transformation to Pacesetting the Employment First Movement
By Guest Blogger Jeremy Norden-Paul, State Director of Employment and Day Services, Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD)
From iconic Nashville venues like the Grand Ole Opry to small businesses in rural counties, employers across Tennessee have discovered first-hand the many benefits of hiring people with disabilities. This is no small feat, and Tennessee is proud to now be a leader in the Employment First movement. However, what people might not know is our state has experienced pretty significant changes in recent years, and much of what we have accomplished is rooted in where we started.
In 1923 our state opened the Tennessee Home and Training School for Feeble-Minded Persons, which later became the Clover Bottom Developmental Center. At the peak of its operation, Clover Bottom housed more than 1,500 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and was one of four state-run institutions across Tennessee. Looking back, it can be difficult to fathom why an institution would ever be considered an acceptable living situation for someone with a disability. After all, we know institutions are isolated, segregated, and fundamentally limit the opportunity for people to experience employment or community life. But institutions actually played an important role in that era; there were no other support models for people with disabilities at the time, and typically the only alternatives were living at home with family (which had its own barriers) or becoming homeless. Tennessee was not alone in this practice either; by the 1960s there were nearly 200,000 people with disabilities living in state-run institutions across the country.
Very fortunately, over the years we realized there are much better options for people with disabilities. During the 1980s there was a strong push for a new community model, which supported people with disabilities in traditional house settings and provided more opportunities to engage in community life. With the emergence of this model, the number of people living in Tennessee institutions declined dramatically. However, it was not until the 1990s that the movement to close our institutions reached a fever pitch.
In 1990 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into our Arlington institution, issued a letter of findings in 1991, and ultimately filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee in 1992. The DOJ then turned its attention to the other three institutions in 1995, which also resulted in a formal investigation and lawsuit. By 1999 we had reached settlement agreements for each institution, which outlined steps to take over the years to come. This was a truly pivotal moment in our state’s history, but it would still be more than a decade before the first institutional closure, and the ensuing years were marked by continued litigation and uncertainty for state agencies and Tennesseans with disabilities.
Tennessee’s unwavering commitment during these challenging years ultimately paid off; as of today, three of our institutions have completely closed, and the fourth is currently transitioning residents into the community and plans to shutter its doors next year. People who spent many years living in an institution – the majority of their lives, in some cases – are now actively participating in their communities. On top of that, Tennessee has emerged as a leader in the Employment First movement, which is driven by the belief that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life.
How did Tennessee make the meteoric shift from segregated institutions and DOJ lawsuits to being a pacesetter for the national Employment First movement? While it is important to acknowledge that the litigation of the 1990s was an important catalyst, there have been many other critical ingredients underpinning our transformation.
One such factor was a 1999 Supreme Court decision known as Olmstead v. L.C., arguably the most important civil rights decision for people with disabilities in our country’s history. It held that people with disabilities have the right to receive public services in the most integrated setting possible, meaning they are entitled to live and work in their own communities. This landmark decision occurred against the backdrop of another important development, which was the emergence during the 1980s and 1990s of a new model known as supported employment, the premise of which is that individuals with disabilities can be successful in the workplace when they have access to the right supports. Following the investigations and lawsuits of the 1990s, the momentous Olmstead decision in 1999, and years of research and success stories behind supported employment, the conditions were ripe for Tennessee to make a leap to the cutting edge of disability services.
In 2012 the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), which operates under the national Department of Labor, created a program called the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program, which awarded grants to four states, including Tennessee. The grant provided technical assistance for Tennessee to reform its policies, regulations, and funding priorities to promote integrated employment as the preferred outcome for people with disabilities. The following year, in June of 2013, our governor signed an executive order declaring Tennessee an Employment First state, which called for the creation of the Employment First Task Force, a cross-agency group of stakeholders that meets regularly to address the barriers to employment for people with disabilities. State agencies have collaborated closely to develop multiple memoranda of understanding to streamline how our state provides services to people with disabilities, including when transitioning from school into the workforce. Our ODEP grant has been renewed each year since 2012, which has allowed us to direct critical resources to providers that are moving away from facility-based sheltered work and adopting community-based employment practices. Over the years we have watched multiple providers undergo transformation and truly revolutionize the services they provide to individuals with disabilities. We have also invested heavily in capacity building, with a focus on key areas like customized employment and family engagement, which has helped accelerate the transformation across the state. The years since 2012 have been another highly pivotal period in our state’s history and we have set the groundwork for continued transformation in the years to come.
So what did it take for Tennessee to emerge from the mire and uncertainty of federal lawsuits to ultimately become a trailblazing state to watch in the Employment First movement? Unfortunately, there is no perfect formula or magic wand, but if we can do it, so can you! We honor the past but remain steadfastly committed to the future, and each day we are driven by the conviction that we can – and must – do better for Tennesseans with disabilities. We know we can achieve more together than we can separately, so we always bring together key stakeholders to address barriers and innovate solutions. At the end of the day, we stay true to our fiercely determined Tennessee spirit and love to tell stories about our journey along the way. Check them out here!
About the Guest Blogger
Jeremy Norden-Paul is the State Director of Employment and Day Services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD). He believes equitable access to employment is a matter of civil rights, and we must not rest until all individuals have the opportunity to pursue competitive, integrated employment. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Annie, and his Labrador mix, Oliver. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeremyTNDIDD.