Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute Offers Advocacy, Networking; Data Shows Impact

By Ned Andrew Solomon

About the Author

Ned Andrew Solomon has been the director of the Tennessee Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute for the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities since 2000. Ned Andrew is also the editor-in-chief of Breaking Ground magazine, and the father of three children with disabilities. He has a bachelor’s degree in writing seminars from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

Our hope is that this blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

As a parent and stepparent of three children with disabilities, I have been both a participant and a facilitator of Tennessee’s Partners in Policymaking™ Leadership Institute, a program of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. I was fortunate enough to be selected as a participant in Partners in 1995 to learn from a bevy of local and national disability experts, and from my peers in the program, who were adults with disabilities and family members of people with disabilities from across the state.

This has always been, from my perspective, the most potent part of this free, annual, intensive and comprehensive training: sharing challenges and successes with other family members and getting first-hand insight from adults with a variety of disabilities who are living the full lives you are hoping your own children will grow up to enjoy. Yes, the speakers and their presentations were frequently exceptional – but the networking component with the other attendees is where the rubber meets the road.

I am equally fortunate to have been the director of this program since December 2000, under the wise (and extremely patient!) mentorship of the Council’s previous director of Partners in Policymaking, Kevin Wright, and thanks to the continued, committed and enthusiastic support of our executive director, Wanda Willis. I have witnessed countless individuals graduate from Partners (574 have completed the program so far) and then take their training and apply it to success in the workplace, meaningful engagement in their communities, powerful and effective advocacy efforts, and important memberships representing the “disability voice” on committees, councils, commissions and task forces around the state. In fact, if you look at the boards, committees and advisory groups of most Tennessee disability-related programs, you will likely find at least a couple of our Partners graduates!

A Personal View of Partners in Policymaking

As a relatively new Partners in Policymaking member (class of 2017-2018), I appreciate having the opportunity to share my experiences and what I (actually we, my wife and I) have learned through our association with Partners.

First, it was very enlightening to be involved with a group of individuals with varying types and levels of disability.  Everyone had undertaken a variety of different activities to address their difficulties.  People had overcome major personal challenges, especially considering their capability and geographic situations.   All the attendees were interested in learning about other’s disabilities and the ways they overcame some of their difficulties.

From a personal standpoint, my wife and I met several people who live/work in or near Chattanooga (we live in Cleveland).   It was especially good to meet others, from Ooltewah, Chattanooga and Hixson.   We have kept in touch and encourage each other in our individual advocacy efforts.

In my daily life, I’ve really taken advantage of the supported decision-making process, enabling me to be more involved in family decisions such as setting our schedules, choosing travel options, shopping for major purchases and doing independent research.

I’ve learned to set my own objectives and take steps to support any actions needed.

Partners provided me with contact information for people statewide with a variety of relevant skills, including assisting those with communication difficulties and those who have trouble planning, executing, or relating to other people.

In summary, the program has helped me to advocate for myself better in daily life and move forward in my redevelopment. I’ve learned, very importantly, that the “normal” measures of disability are not very effective at describing the actual capabilities of affected individuals.

–Larry Huber, Partners in Policymaking graduate, 2017

I am especially proud of the diversity of our Partners. Throughout our recruitment and selection process we work diligently to create classes that are diverse by geography of the state, race and ethnicity, gender, age of participant and family member represented, and type of disability. We have received numerous comments from visiting national speakers who have noticed the “variety” of our class makeup, which always does my director’s heart good.

Attendees come from across the state to Middle Tennessee once a month for seven months to stay in a hotel on Friday nights and participate in training activities and networking on Friday afternoons and Saturdays until about 3 p.m. They start in September and end in April.

We have also been blessed with a wonderful partner in the Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, which has assisted us in evaluating our Partners program and other Council initiatives. The Boling Center in Memphis is one of our sister agencies in the Tennessee Developmental Disabilities Network, created by the federal Developmental Disabilities Act that also created State Councils on Developmental Disabilities; Boling Center is one of two University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities in Tennessee, along with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Each year, Boling Center staff does a pre-evaluation and post-evaluation of the current Partners class attendees, and every other year, a longitudinal survey of our entire cohort of graduates. This past year, I worked on a research poster summarizing some of this data with Zach DeBerry, M.S., and Bruce Keisling, Ph.D., of the Boling Center, which they presented in Washington, D.C., at the national conference of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

This provided a great opportunity for me as the director, and the Council as its sponsor, to see, in one product, the impact we’ve had on Tennessee’s disability community through the Partners program. According to data collected from the surveys:

  • Respondents reported high levels of community involvement, knowledge of community resources for people with disabilities, a sense of connectedness to others with similar life experiences, and the ability to access community resources for people with disabilities.
  • Family members reported highest satisfaction with gained knowledge of disability issues, increased quality of life, and increased advocacy skills.
  • Individuals with disabilities reported highest satisfaction with increased advocacy skills, comfort in joining and being involved in advocacy groups, and increased quality of life.
  • 99% of respondents reported that the program has made their life better, with 86% reporting “a good amount” or “a lot” of improvement in quality of life.

One of the summary statements on the poster reads: “Tennessee’s Partners in Policymaking program is improving knowledge of disability issues, leadership skills, ability and involvement in advocacy, sense of empowerment, connectedness to others as well as connectedness to community resources, and quality of life for graduates in Tennessee.”

Of course, it’s always best to hear directly from actual participants. Here are a few:

“…I have been an advocate my entire life, but Partners has made me a better advocate for even more marginalized populations.”

“I no longer feel alone in my fight for inclusion and to end discrimination.”

“The program is worth its weight in gold!”

“Partners is an essential program in our state…it’s good to have a program that teaches you how to grab those bootstraps…”

“…This is an amazing program and I am truly thankful to have participated. My life and my family’s have been forever changed. Thank you!!”

In April, the Council will graduate 25 more Partners who will have successfully completed the training. The training includes learning about:

  • The history of the disability experience.
  • Creating more inclusive communities.
  • Best practices in inclusive education, assistive technology, supported and independent living.
  • Strategies to promote employment among people with disabilities.
  • The state and federal legislative process.
  • Conducting and participating in effective meetings.
  • Much more along the way.

Thankfully, the Partners training remains a core priority of the Council’s work. If you are interested in applying to or finding out more about the Partners in Policymaking training, please call me at 615-532-6556, email me at ned.solomon@tn.gov, or invite me to come speak to your group about this wonderful, free opportunity. You can apply online on our website at https://www.tn.gov/content/tn/cdd/training-and-news/leadership-training-and-development/partners-in-policymaking/partners-in-policymaking-application.html. The deadline to apply for the 2019-20 Partners class is April 30, 2019.

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Thank you, Ned, for your excellent work in directing the Partners program and for taking the time to share this information about this free and fabulous opportunity. I have a number of friends and one spouse who have taken part in Partners, and every one of them has only terrific things to say about program. Yes, there is a significant time commitment involved, but I think if you apply and are accepted, you will find it a richly rewarding experience. As usual, if you have questions, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. I’m happy to try to find answers.