Gov. Bill Lee met with a group of East Tennessee State University students as part of his visit to Johnson City on Thursday to learn more about support programs to assist Tennesseans with developmental disabilities.

During a stop at the Martin Center for the Performing Arts, the governor spoke to students involved in the university’s Access ETSU program, which is designed to provide students with intellectual disabilities with the same college experience as their fellow classmates without disabilities.

Later, Lee officially received the latest “Expect Employment Report,” which was compiled by the Employment First Task Force created by his predecessor former Gov. Bill Haslam in 2013. The task force is charged with providing an annual report to the governor on state initiatives to eliminate barriers to employment for Tennesseans with developmental disabilities.

Garrison Buchanan, who is the university’s first Access ETSU student, presented the governor with the results of the annual report.

“Every human being deserves and should have dignity as expressed by the world around them,” Lee said during a brief ceremony at the Martin Center, which included the commissioners of the state Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The governor said the state is striving to “change the very unique lives” of people with disabilities “through access to education, technology and employment programs that will empower them.”

The latest “Expect Employment Report” pointed to Access ETSU, which is one of six higher education institutions in Tennessee with an inclusive post-secondary program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. More than 80% of graduates from these programs are successfully employed.

“As I’ve heard the governor say many times, there is dignity in a paycheck,” said Brad Turner, the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

The executive summary of the “Expect Employment Report” noted the COVID-19 pandemic has created some significant employment challenges for people with disabilities. The report states “the use of technology will play a major role in the task force’s new strategic plan, which is currently in the finalization process.”

Successes cited in the report include passage of the State as a Model Employer legislation, intended to make state government a model employer of people with disabilities, and the creation of the Tennessee Believes Program, which will increase access to inclusive higher education opportunities at colleges and universities across Tennessee.

Earlier Thursday, Lee joined local legislators and other state officials on a tour of Core Services of Northeast Tennessee. The Johnson City-based nonprofit organization provides assisted living, employment and nursing services to residents with developmental disabilities in the region.

The state Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and TennCare are currently working with Core Services to use enabling technology to support those with disabilities in reaching their goals of independence.

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Press Senior Reporter

Robert Houk has served as a journalist and photographer at the Press since 1987. He is a recipient of the Associated Press Managing Editors Malcom Law Award for investigative reporting.

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