Tennessee Launches New Center for Decision-Making Support

/ July 16, 2021

(Editor’s note: One of the big decisions that individuals with disabilities and their families often make is whether the person will be employed because employment can have a huge impact on an individual’s life. Having accurate information about various decision-making options is important, not only for employment but many other decisions as well.)

By Jolene Sharp

Tennessee is the first state in the nation to offer one central place to learn about decision-making support and future planning for people with disabilities. The new TN Center for Decision-Making Support offers:

  • Easy-to-understand, accurate information about decision-making options, such as supported decision-making, power of attorney, conservatorship, and more.
  • Financial tools like special needs trusts, ABLE accounts, and more.
  • Practical resources to help you plan for the future and know what decision-making supports are right for you.
  • Stories of how real people with disabilities in Tennessee get the support they need to make decisions about their lives.
  • A contact form to reach the center’s team for one-on-one help.

The center is a shared effort of The Arc Tennessee, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and Disability Rights Tennessee. The center’s trained staff can answer questions, provide limited one-on-one decision-making help, and make referrals to legal help. As the center’s legal partner, Disability Rights Tennessee has dedicated staff who can provide legal counsel about decision-making options. Also, the website offers lots of accessibility and language options, which is wonderful!

Why is the center needed?

The new Center for Decision-Making Support will give people with disabilities and family members information about decision-making so you can choose the best methods for your life. Before the creation of this center, it was hard to find this information. In fact, national data show that most people have misconceptions about decision-making supports and do not know how to find resources.

The Council on Developmental Disabilities began focusing on decision-making in 2016. We were hearing from Tennesseans with disabilities, including mental health conditions, who wanted more control over their own lives. We also heard from family members, friends or other supporters who wanted to understand the options but didn’t know where to start. We saw first-hand how complicated the information can be, especially when legally recognized supports (like powers of attorney, special needs trusts, and conservatorship) are needed. This was an information gap we knew we had to fix.

Why does this matter?

Another theme became clear in our research: a sense of control is a human need, for all people. Decades of research prove that having more control over decisions means better lives for people with disabilities – including more independence, better mental and physical health, and higher rates of employment.

The new Center for Decision-Making Support can help people with disabilities and family members or friends enhance this healthy sense of control using supported decision-making. Supported decision-making is the idea that a person has the right to make decisions to the full extent possible, even as they get needed support. In reality, most of us informally use supported decision-making when we ask family members or friends for their input into decisions we are trying to make. Supported decision-making can be used with all different types of legal supports, including power of attorney or conservatorship. People in all kinds of situations can use it, including people with all types of disabilities or mental health conditions.

So, what does this look like? How do people with disabilities get support to make as many of their own decisions as possible?

Supported decision-making in practice

The DD Council recently released two very short videos. Will McMillan of Nashville and the Brown family of Murfreesboro share here what supported decision-making looks like for them.

For a long time, people and systems that support people with disabilities believed they needed to protect people with disabilities by making decisions for them. The intentions were usually good. But it meant people with disabilities, often including those with mental health issues, were not able to have much of a say in their own lives.

Britney Spears’ legal battle to get back control over her life has started a national conversation about conservatorship. Many disability advocates have talked about how important this conversation is. They believe there is much more we can do to make sure people with disabilities get support to make decisions and build lives they love.

The DD Council and our partners started the TN Center for Decision-Making Support to help people with disabilities and their families know all their options and to find the right supports for them. We believe this center is an important step to making sure people with disabilities have the support they need to live their very best lives.

Visit the Center for Decision-Making Support and let us know what you think! For questions or one-on-one help, email ds@thearctn.org or call (615) 248-5878, ext. 322.

I’m grateful to Jolene for writing about the Center for Decision-Making Support, and I’m grateful that the DD Council, Disability Rights Tennessee, and The Arc Tennessee saw the need for such a center and decided to take action to fill that need. We are fortunate in our state to have a network of disability organizations that work together so very well! I often get questions from families about conservatorship and concerns about their loved one’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Now I have a resource that I can point families to in order to easily learn about options that allow greater participation by individuals with disabilities in making decisions throughout their lives. I hope you’ll take time to explore the center’s resources and contact the staff if you have questions or need assistance. And as always, if you have questions for me, email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thank you for reading!

Jolene Sharp is chief public information officer for the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. She is the parent of two children with developmental disabilities, Corin and Lina. She lives in Brentwood, TN, with her family.

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