Longtime DD Council Leader, Wanda Willis, Is Retiring, and Shares Triumphs and Trials
By Janet Shouse
I often include personal tidbits about my son with autism or my experience as a parent or a member of the broader disability community when I write. Today’s post is personal for me. I don’t recall the first time I met Wanda Willis, but I feel certain it was relatively soon after our son Evan was diagnosed with autism in 1998. Wanda was the executive director of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and I was immediately drawn to her passion for her work in helping people with developmental disabilities get the supports and services they need and deserve. Wanda has been a dear and trusted friend since those early days for my husband, John, and me. (And when our daughter, Emma, was working on her degree in social work, Wanda encouraged Emma to intern with the Council and then hired her after she graduated. And we’re very grateful for that!)
I have always been amazed at Wanda’s ability to network with folks across the political spectrum and navigate through sometimes rough political waters.
Wanda announced recently that she is retiring, and I asked her if I could interview her and get her perspectives on key issues that she’s dealt with over her years as the DD Council’s executive director. She graciously agreed. I hope as you read, if you don’t know Wanda, you can see the enthusiasm and dedication she has brought to her role for all these years.
Q. In January, after 44 years, you will be retiring as the executive director of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. What would you list as the top three accomplishments that the DD Council and/or our state has achieved in those years?
A. I find it nearly impossible to name only three. When I think of Council projects, all seem equally important to me. Accomplishments led by the Council have impacted people of all ages and touched all areas of community life: housing, transportation, child care, family support, employment, health care, recreation, self-advocacy programs, emergency response, education and post-secondary programs, assistive technology, and leadership development programs for professionals and individuals, family members, and siblings.
Here are a few projects launched by the Council that stand out to me:
- Home ownership for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities
- Employment pilot programs ranging from self-employment programs to customized employment models
- Person-centered projects within the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation
- Inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual disabilities on college campuses across Tennessee
- People First of TN statewide and local chapters
- Child Care Resource Centers to support child care providers serving children with disabilities
- The Employment Roundtable to connect state programs that support employment services for Tennesseans with disabilities
- Next Chapter Book Clubs for non-readers
- Accommodations at local parks and recreation programs
- Tennessee Disability Pathfinder Statewide Information and Referral Center and Multicultural Project
All of these Council-led projects are carried out with state and local partners that help assure the projects can continue.
Q. For those who aren’t familiar with the DD Council, can you give a brief overview of the Council and its role?
A. The Council is a small state government agency that works to improve policies and practices for people with disabilities and their families, both in government programs and in local communities. Councils were created by the Developmental Disabilities Act, largely written by professionals and family members and first passed by Congress in 1971. The authors of the DD Act recognized the need for an entity to pull together government programs for people of all ages and types of lifelong disabilities. This one entity was designed to work on a full and responsive system of supports and services. That’s the role of the Council.
Q. What did you do prior to becoming the executive director of the Council? Did you feel like that work prepared you to lead the Council?
A. Before becoming executive director of the Council, I was director of planning for the state agency that is now Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Before that, I was a special education teacher and then a school psychologist. I became a psychological examiner because I didn’t buy into the labels given to children I taught. My education and experience as a psych examiner cemented my views – I don’t find IQ scores helpful. I believe they often promote bias and limit expectations. Tests are only helpful if they inform us how a student learns best and what his/her interests and strengths are.
Q. What’s been the best part of your job?
A. Working alongside colleagues and Council members. I love working with others, especially those with different points of view, finding areas of consensus, and coming up with strategies to reach a successful outcome that will make an impact. Team efforts and products are always better.
Q. What’s been the worst part?
A. The problems that people experience that I can’t fix. Sometimes it feels like sifting sand with a fork – we seldom reach the critical mass.
Q. Do you still get nervous when you have to testify before House or Senate committees? (Of course, I’m assuming that you were nervous at first.)
A. Very nervous! However, when I start talking about the Council, our initiatives, what our experiences have taught us, I immediately relax and could talk all day long. Legislators are attentive and engaged in the discussion. I always end by telling our legislators that the Council is the best deal they have going for them in the state budget. Given our size and small state dollar investment compared to our accomplishments, they get a huge return on their investment! They always agree.
Q. You have been able to work well with both Democratic and Republican administrations. Do you have any tips for working successfully with leaders across the political spectrum?
A. My tip for working successfully with leaders across the political spectrum is to focus on a shared vision – doing the best we can to support Tennesseans with developmental disabilities and their family members. Regardless of political party, I have found that we all want that. Throughout our history, improvements to both state and federal policies and practices have come from both political parties.
Q. What would you say was your biggest disappointment while leading the Council?
A. My biggest disappointment is our failure as a system to plan for and fund support needs for Tennessee adults with developmental disabilities. Since public law requires our schools to identify and track all children with disabilities, we have information at our fingertips to estimate how many students will need support as they leave school in the next five years – and what supports they’ll need. Long-term services and supports should be available to all who qualify. Currently, we provide services to about one-tenth of the people with developmental disabilities who would qualify for supports and services as adults. We can do better.
Q. Lauren Pearcy, the current public policy director at the Council, has been selected to become the new executive director. Would you like to introduce Lauren and tell us a little about her?
A. The greatest joy to me as I move into retirement has been turning this agency that I love over to Lauren Pearcy. I met Lauren before she moved Tennessee almost eight years ago. I urged TennCare to hire her when she relocated here, then hired her myself the first chance I got. Lauren is the epitome of all the Council stands for and needs to excel. She has a master’s degree in public policy and was primary author of the National Governor’s Association’s report that promoted hiring Americans with disabilities called “A Better Bottom Line.” She was the first director of TennCare’s Employment and Community First CHOICES program. She built a state and nationally recognized public policy program at the Council. She develops relationships with sincerity and caring, always making time for individuals, agencies, and especially our Council members. I am amazed at her ability to perfectly balance all she does at the Council with her young family – her husband and two small children. I have pictures of myself holding her two children as infants, and I depend on weekly videos of their activities for comedic relief. Lauren will lead the Council in new and exciting directions, and I’ll be on the sidelines applauding!
Q. If you could share one idea or strategy for people with disabilities or their family members to help them become better advocates, what would that be?
A. We each have different skills and roles to play as advocates. There is no one way to contribute to the movement to improve experiences of Tennesseans with developmental disabilities. We just need you to join in and do your part, whatever that is. Each of us can make a difference.
Q. Any final parting words?
A. Continuing the previous discussion, my “parting shot” would be to work hard together. I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone in our work that didn’t sincerely care and believe in their efforts to improve experiences of Tennesseans with developmental disabilities. Of course, we don’t all agree on how we get there. However, it’s been my experience that if you join with others, treat everyone with respect (even when you disagree), look for commonalities, keep your “eyes on the prize,” and practice personal humility, we will be successful in moving the needle forward.
In closing, I’ll share a note my husband, John Shouse, wrote to Wanda upon the announcement of her retirement. (He’d copied me on the email.)
It is with mixed emotions that I think about your departure from the Executive Director position. Sad personally that you and I won’t be working as closely together as we have in years past. But absolutely delighted for you personally in what retirement will mean to you after a long and extraordinarily fruitful tenure in the position. You, too, have (as you have credited Lauren in her current role) created a TN Council on Developmental Disabilities that is TRULY a national model of excellence. I know how many times I’ve been at national events and mentioned the work of our TN Council, only to have people glowingly report something like, “Oh yes! We LOVE Wanda Willis.” No false modesty from you allowed here …. what you have accomplished here for all of us is humbling, gratifying, admirable, and heart-warming all at the same time. I personally have grown as an advocate (and as a person who tries to look for the realistic “best” solution to serving our loved-ones) through the many, many opportunities we’ve had to work together through the years. I will miss you. And I hope that we do have opportunity to continue to be together occasionally, even if on less “formal” matters.
All the best,
I want to first thank Wanda for all her years of service and dedication to individuals with disabilities, as a teacher, as a psychologist and as the E.D. of the Council. And I thank her for taking the time to write about her extraordinary efforts and those of the Council during her years in leadership there. We owe a great deal to her, and I know I’m looking forward to working with the new executive director, Lauren Pearcy, whom I’ve gotten to know over the past six years or so through my work with TennesseeWorks and related projects here at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. I’m delighted Wanda gets to enjoy some leisure time, and I’m thrilled she has handed the reins over to Lauren! I hope you all will get to know Lauren and the DD Council’s work. Check out https://www.tn.gov/cdd.html Thanks for reading, and if you have questions, please contact me at email@example.com.
Janet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.