Little-Known Program Just Expanded to Include People with Disabilities who Own Small Businesses

/ August 9, 2017

By Lauren Pearcy


About the Author

Lauren Pearcy is the public policy director for the Council on Developmental Disabilities. She has a master’s degree in public policy from the George Washington University and 10 years of experience in public policy, having spent six years working at the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., and the past four years in Tennessee state government.

Our hope is that this weekly 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

Are you a business owner? Or aspire to be a business owner someday?

If you own a business and have a disability, or if you know someone who does, then you will want to know about a bill that quietly passed the Tennessee State Legislature this year and took effect on July 1, 2017.

This bill started as an idea from a relatively new state legislator, Tennessee Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, who happens to be the father of a son who was born with muscular dystrophy.  Rep. Daniel’s idea was straightforward: “I want to support business owners who have disabilities.” In collaboration with the Disability Policy Alliance  (The Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, The Arc of Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee, and the Tennessee Statewide Independent Living Council), Rep. Daniel turned the idea into a bill — which became law with little debate and virtually no opposition within a matter of months. The bill, SB 1224/HB 1276, was sponsored by Rep. Daniel and Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville.

What does the law do?  

This law amends an existing Tennessee law to add people with disabilities to a program called the Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise, known as “Go-DBE.” The intent of the program, as the title suggests, is to support business enterprises with diverse business owners.  Read more about the history of the program here.

You may not know about the Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise, even if you are used to seeing updates from TennesseeWorks about employment supports and programs.  Previously, the program was aimed toward certain business owners specifically: people who are minorities, women, or service-disabled veterans – although the program does offer assistance to small business owners broadly (who apply and meet qualifications).

As of July 1, 2017, the program now includes “businesses owned by persons with disabilities” to the list of qualifying businesses.

That means people who have disabilities and who own their own businesses can apply to become certified with the Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise.

What are some of the advantages of becoming certified with this office?

  • It’s easier to do business with the state: Certification as a diversity business enterprise provides greater exposure for certified businesses to receive opportunities with the state of Tennessee. A list of current opportunities to do business with the state is posted on the Go-DBE website.
  • The state can find your business more easily: The names of all certified businesses appear in the Go-DBE Certified Directory and are posted on the website for ALL state agencies and departments to utilize when seeking sources for goods, supplies, equipment, personal and professional contracts, construction, architect and design services.
  • Your business may get preference if all else is equal between you and another bidder. Certified Go-DBE Respondents may be utilized as a preference to resolve Tie Bid Responses.
  • The Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise holds events that help you network. For example, last week, Go-DBE held an event with the East Tennessee Purchasing Association for a “Business Matching and Tradeshow” in Knoxville. The event was for all East Tennessee businesses, especially small firms, to meet local government purchasing officials and learn about the business opportunities available in east Tennessee. Approximately 25 government agencies were scheduled to participate and up to 300 vendors were to attend the event! Such events are great opportunities for businesses to meet governmental agencies (all in one place), create relationships to build future business opportunities, learn about “doing business” with the entities and to meet with private sector vendors.
  • You could get technical assistance with the Department of Economic and Community Development Business Enterprise Resource Office. Read more here.

How does the program work?

The program is administered by the Tennessee Department of General Services. The program has a dedicated website that walks through all the steps in the process for applying to become certified as a business that will benefit from the program. The steps include submitting forms via a state portal called EDISON and hosting on-site visits at your business. The business owner has the responsibility to prove he or she fits into one of the categories, including a person with a disability. The disability criteria are below, and there is a disability affidavit posted on the website to ease the application process:

  • “Person with a disability” means an individual who meets at least one (1) of the following:
    • (A) Has been diagnosed as having a physical or mental disability resulting in marked and severe functional limitations that is expected to last no less than twelve (12) months;
    • (B) Is eligible to receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI); or
    • (C) Is eligible to receive supplemental security income (SSI) and has a disability as defined in subdivision (A).
  • “Business owned by persons with disabilities” means: a business owned by a person with a disability that is a continuing, independent, for-profit business that performs a commercially useful function, and is at least fifty-one percent (51%) owned and controlled by one (1) or more persons with a disability; or, in the case of any publicly-owned business, at least fifty one percent (51%) of the stock of which is owned and controlled by one (1) or more persons with a disability and whose management and daily business operations are under the control of one (1) or more persons with a disability.

What else does the law do?

Additionally, the law requires all state agencies to report on upcoming procurement and contract opportunities.

Interestingly, all state agencies have a “liaison” to the diversity business program, and all agencies must report to this office on the level of participation by each category of business owner.

The Governor’s Office on Diversity Business Enterprise publishes an annual report on the data collected. The report shows that in 2016, there are about 1,400 businesses participating in the program.

How was the law passed?  

In theory, turning an idea into a law should be able to happen during one legislative cycle – but that rarely happens. Rather miraculously, the bill amending the diversity business program to include businesses owned by persons with disabilities happened not just within one legislative cycle, but within one legislative session; that is, between January and May of 2017, which is the first of Tennessee’s two-year legislative cycle.

It all started with Rep. Daniel’s simple statement to the Disability Policy Alliance: “I want to support business owners who have disabilities.”

It Takes a Village – and a “Policy Window”

For those of us who have been to policy school, we learned about the elusive “policy window” that accomplishments rely on: multiple factors work together in your favor and that becomes a short “window” of opportunity to create policy change. If everything does not align just so, even the best idea will go nowhere. Our policy window consisted of several factors.

Legislative Champions

By way of a quick civics refresher: every bill must have at least one “sponsor” – i.e., a champion in the state legislature – from each chamber, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Rep. Daniel was quickly joined by Sen. Massey in introducing the bill. And there was one other key sponsor to the bill who helped shepherd it through to become law: Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory. These three legislators and their dedicated staff made this bill possible, not only by sponsoring the bill but by offering powerful remarks to their fellow legislators while the bill was debated.

Teamwork across the Disability Policy Alliance

It was a huge honor to be contacted by Rep. Daniel to consult on this bill. The Disability Policy Alliance utilized the unique expertise of each partner to turn the idea into reality. For example, we turned to Disability Rights Tennessee for the legal expertise to help draft a bill that would amend current state code to add “persons with disabilities” to the program; we relied on the legislative experience of The Arc Tennessee to help keep track of the bill through the legislative process (which consisted of more than 10 committee hearings across four different committees and subcommittees in the House and the Senate); and the Council on Developmental Disabilities, being the only state government agency within the Alliance, was able to coordinate among the state agencies involved.

Executive Branch State Agencies

Although the most obvious state agency involved with the Go-DBE program is the Tennessee Department of General Services, several other agencies came together to make the idea to add people with disabilities a reality.

One rather happy, chance connection was with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. In February, shortly after meeting with Rep. Daniel, the Council on Developmental Disabilities was meeting with Chief Operating Officer Ted Townsend about disability employment broadly. Townsend had recently participated in a National Task Force on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities alongside Sen. Massey. Moreover, he was assigned to a subgroup that focused on entrepreneurship for people with disabilities. By the time we mentioned the bill, it was clear he had already given thought to the same idea Rep. Daniel first had: how can Tennessee support business owners who have disabilities? Another champion for the bill was born.

Likewise, other departments, like us at the Council on Developmental Disabilities and our colleagues at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, were on hand to lend expertise and support throughout the process.

What can you do with this information?

  • Spread the word about this opportunity; take advantage of it if you own a small business!
  • Help identify business owners who might benefit

The Go-DBE program contacts are listed here.

Feel free to contact the Disability Policy Alliance, too.

Carrie Hobbs Guiden, Executive Director, The Arc Tennessee,

Kelsey Loschke, Director of Community Relations, Disability Rights Tennessee,

Lauren Pearcy, Director of Public Policy, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities,

Linnet Overton, Executive Director, the Statewide Independent Living Council,

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