Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Brad Turner visited the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Tuesday, Jan. 31, to discuss expanding opportunities for students with disabilities and to bring awareness to career paths in early intervention, child and family studies and social work.
The visit was a part of a two-day trip to UTC and Chattanooga State Community College to talk about how higher education programs can help Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Turner’s department, known as DIDD, launched the Tennessee Believes program in 2021 to increase opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at colleges and universities across the state. Since launching, Tennessee Believes grants have created new inclusive higher education programs.
“We’ve seen the impact early intervention and inclusive higher education can have for the people we support throughout their lifespans,” Turner said. “They increase independence, expand skill sets, improve employment outcomes and build confidence.”
Turner was accompanied to Chattanooga by members of his DIDD team. Highlights of their day on campus included meeting with UTC administrators, including Chancellor Steven R. Angle, Provost Jerold Hale and College of Health, Education and Professional Studies Dean Valerie Rutledge; an extended session with more than 50 students in the University Center Raccoon Mountain Room; and a meeting with faculty from the School of Education and the Social Work program.
While meeting for more than an hour with students from the School of Education, Psychology and Social Work programs, Turner shared his personal story; his daughter, Kinsley, was born with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“When you hear your child might be different from others, it’s overwhelming,” Turner told the students. “They just don’t know what to do.”
Turner said he is passionate about ensuring families are prepared to help their children, “We’ve got to do better in how we educate children with disabilities.”
The conversation included getting students to think about pathways into the work he advocates—early intervention—as a potential career option since “more and more families of children with disabilities are reaching out every month.”
“We need you in a lot of different areas,” he told the students. “There are a lot of opportunities out there in a lot of different fields.”
Turner noted that DIDD is the fifth-largest department in the Tennessee state government.
“We are so thankful for Commissioner Turner’s visit to UTC,” said Dr. Kim Wingate, interim co-director of the UTC School of Education and associate professor. “The commissioner and his team met with a great group of students, followed by a thoughtful conversation with faculty from multiple departments. It went really well.
“There is always so much to learn working in this profession,” she continued, “and it was so inspiring to learn about the initiatives his team is working on—and how we can all work together. It was important for our students to learn about these different avenues of support for children and their families.”
The commissioner was scheduled to have a similar series of meetings on Feb. 1 at Chattanooga State.