Want to Know More About How Inclusive Higher Education is Growing in Tennessee?

/ December 17, 2019

By Jolene Sharp

About the Author

Jolene Sharp is chief public information officer for the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. She joined the Council in January and combines her passion for compelling communication with a deep personal investment in improving the lives of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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 janet.shouse@vumc.org.

Tennessee now has six college programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities – often called “inclusive higher education.” In August, Garrison Buchanan became the first inclusive higher education student to attend classes at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. The launch of ETSU’s ACCESS pilot program this year makes it the newest Tennessee inclusive higher education option. Check out ETSU’s video, featuring Garrison.

What does “inclusive higher education” mean, and how do the programs work?

A new video released this summer by the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance gives a great overview.

The video answers questions like:

  • What is inclusive higher education?
  • Who is eligible?
  • What should students do to get ready for college?
  • How do students pay for college?
  • How do students apply to an inclusive higher education program?

We know that access to higher education plays a powerful role in increasing employment for people with developmental disabilities. In fact, 88% of 2017 and 2018 graduates from the state’s inclusive higher education programs were employed within 90 days. (That’s a complete reversal of the 70%-85% national unemployment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.)

Nearly 10 years ago, the Council on Developmental Disabilities worked with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, with inaugural funding from the LDB Foundation, to open the first inclusive higher education program in the state. The Council then supported new programs in each grand region of the state.

Today, the six programs in Tennessee are:

  • TigerLife at the University of Memphis
  • EDGE at Union University in Jackson
  • Next Steps at Vanderbilt University in Nashville
  • IDEAL at Lipscomb University in Nashville
  • FUTURE at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville
  • 2019 Pilot: ACCESS at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City

You can find specifics about each program and link to each program’s website at https://tnihealliance.org/

Tennessee’s Inclusive Higher Education Alliance wanted to produce a video on inclusive higher education to help educators, high school students and their families know these programs are a great option for students with intellectual disabilities. The video received a very warm reception at special education training sessions over the summer. It will continue to be used by the Department of Education, the Inclusive Higher Education Alliance, each of the inclusive higher education college programs, the Council, and other organizations to share the great news about inclusive higher education.

You can help spread the word about college options for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities! Share the video on your social media feeds, with friends and family, and with high school educators and students with disabilities in your life.

We are proud of our state’s progress on continuing education for students with disabilities as they graduate from high school. We look forward to seeing the bright futures ahead as more students pursue higher education at Tennessee’s inclusive programs!


My thanks to Jolene for writing about the new inclusive higher ed video and about ETSU’s new program. So many families and individuals are interested in creating such opportunities near their communities, and learning about new programs is always exciting. If you have questions, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thank you for reading!

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