Chattanooga State receives state grant, will launch new program for students with intellectual, developmental disabilities

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / School President Rebecca Ashford, right, shakes hands with student Luka Hyde at Chattanooga State Community College on Monday.

Chattanooga State Community College will launch Tiger Access, a program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, this fall.

On Monday, Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Brad Turner presented Chattanooga State with a $411,000 grant to create the new program. The two-year program will focus on life skills, career exploration and job readiness.

"The American dream is there for everybody. It just might look a little different," Turner said during the ceremony. "What we believe is that this is a pursuit of the American dream for students with disabilities that want to pursue jobs, want to pursue community involvement, want to pursue relationships."

In 2022, state legislators appropriated $500,000 in a recurring grant, called Tennessee Believes, to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to increase the number of inclusive higher education programs. Chattanooga State is one of two community colleges to be awarded the grant.

"This program I am so proud of because it truly aligns with our purpose that Chattanooga State empowers everyone in our community to learn without limits," Rebecca Ashford, the college's president, said during the ceremony. "When we say everyone, we truly mean everyone."

(READ MORE: Tennessee works to expand higher education opportunities for people with disabilities)

Tiger Access' first cohort will have between six and eight students, but the number of students will likely increase as the program grows.

 "Peer support is crucial in all of this," Kristi Strode, the director of the college's Center for Access and Disability Services and the co-director of the Tiger Access program, said in an interview. "We want them to make friends and have the true college experience."

Tiger Access students will start by taking a college readiness course, which will help students identify what their career interests are and cover topics including self-advocacy, life skills and classroom etiquette. They can then audit or take college classes for credit, Strode said.

Students will also earn certifications from Chattanooga State's Workforce Development program and take enrichment classes from the Orange Grove Center, a Chattanooga nonprofit that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. During their second year, each student will complete a community-based work experience as a capstone project.

At the end of the program, students will receive a certificate of completion, as well as the workforce certifications they completed. Turner aims to work closely with business partners that will acknowledge that a certificate of completion is the equivalent of a college degree.

"Historically, not just in Tennessee, but in the United States, there hasn't been a conversation about students with disabilities being able to go to college," Turner said in an interview. "We want to continue to drive progress the right way in education by creating programs for students to get a degree."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's Enterprise Center helps connect autistic and other neurodivergent individuals with employers, businesses)

The program also aims to partner Tiger Access students with other students at Chattanooga State as another form of inclusion.

"It's a structured friendship that we very much have an eye on," Strode said. "It allows even more immersion into the college experience for the Tiger Access students."

The Tiger Access program intends to have its first cohort of students start Oct. 9, the first day of Chattanooga State's second fall session. The program is still accepting student applications.

"When you start segregated, you remain segregated," Rebecca Aslinger, the program's other co-director, said in an interview. "They are college students first, and that's what we're going to do. Whatever applies to the college, applies to us."

Contact Shannon Coan at or 423-757-6396.