By Guest Blogger Jeremy Norden-Paul, State Director of Employment and Day Services, Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD)
From iconic Nashville venues like the Grand Ole Opry to small businesses in rural counties, employers across Tennessee have discovered first-hand the many benefits of hiring people with disabilities. This is no small feat, and Tennessee is proud to now be a leader in the Employment First movement. However, what people might not know is our state has experienced pretty significant changes in recent years, and much of what we have accomplished is rooted in where we started.
In 1923 our state opened the Tennessee Home and Training School for Feeble-Minded Persons, which later became the Clover Bottom Developmental Center. At the peak of its operation, Clover Bottom housed more than 1,500 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and was one of four state-run institutions across Tennessee. Looking back, it can be difficult to fathom why an institution would ever be considered an acceptable living situation for someone with a disability. After all, we know institutions are isolated, segregated, and fundamentally limit the opportunity for people to experience employment or community life. But institutions actually played an important role in that era; there were no other support models for people with disabilities at the time, and typically the only alternatives were living at home with family (which had its own barriers) or becoming homeless. Tennessee was not alone in this practice either; by the 1960s there were nearly 200,000 people with disabilities living in state-run institutions across the country.
Very fortunately, over the years we realized there are much better options for people with disabilities. During the 1980s there was a strong push for a new community model, which supported people with disabilities in traditional house settings and provided more opportunities to engage in community life. With the emergence of this model, the number of people living in Tennessee institutions declined dramatically. However, it was not until the 1990s that the movement to close our institutions reached a fever pitch.
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