Since Disability Rights Tennessee’s (DRT) founding, inclusion, integration, self-determination, productivity, and independence, have been the guiding principles behind our mission. These values spurred a small group of parents and professionals to form an organization that would become Tennessee’s Protection & Advocacy System.
In 1978, a group of parents and professionals attended an advocacy training workshop at the International Association for Citizens of Learning Disabilities Convention. Inspired and motivated to create change, the group spurred the creation of an autonomous organization with its primary mission to provide education for parents of children with disabilities regarding their children’s needs, rights, and resources and to provide individual advocacy. E.A.C.H.--Education Advocacy for Children with Handicaps—as it was then called, was incorporated soon after. In July 1983, the acronym was changed to mean "Effective Advocacy for Citizens with Handicaps" when advocacy services were expanded to serve adults with disabilities.
It was during this period of growth in services that E.A.C.H. was designated Tennessee’s Protection & Advocacy (P&A) system by then-governor Lamar Alexander. The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975 (DD Act) mandated a system to protect and advocate for the rights of persons with developmental disabilities. Under this act, the agency has the authority to pursue legal, administrative, and other appropriate remedies to insure the protection of the rights of persons who have a developmental disability. Subsequent federal legislation has since created additional grant programs that expanded the agency’s services to include persons with all kinds of disabilities.
Watch this video for more information on the P&A System:
In addition to the P&A System, the DD Act of 1975 also created University Centers for Excellence on Development Disabilities (UCEDDs) and State Councils on Developmental Disabilities. DRT still works closely with these entities within Tennessee to enhance developmental disabilities services in the state. Tennessee’s DD Network includes: DRT, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, and the UT Boling Center.
From day one, DRT has used its authority to create equal opportunities for Tennesseans with disabilities. We concentrate our work in three strategic areas: freedom from harm, freedom from discrimination, and freedom to participate in the community. We have served—at no cost—more than 40,000 clients, with issues ranging from lack of community based services or a student being locked in a closet at school to being denied a sign language interpreter while in a hospital emergency room.
Among DRT's landmark cases are Lane v. Tennessee and Brown v. Tennessee. The Lane case was on behalf of six plaintiffs with mobility disabilities, one of whom used a wheelchair and was forced to crawl up steps in order to reach a courtroom. Settlement of that case resulted in changes that have increased accessibility of Tennessee’s court system to people with all types of disabilities. For example, Tennessee's judicial branch now has an Americans with Disabilities (ADA) policy in place that allows people with disabilities to request disability related modifications such as a continuance or sign language interpreter. The Brown case, better known as the "waiting list" case, was a class action on behalf of over 6,000 people with intellectual disabilities who were on a waiting list to be enrolled in a Medicaid program to pay for services necessary to remain in the community. Because of the settlement in Brown, more than 3,000 people on the waiting list were enrolled into a Medicaid waiver program.
Over the years, we have expanded our individual advocacy and legal work to include Policy Advocacy to support and extend our victories won at an individual level, and to help prevent legislative attempts to undermine gains made by the disability community. Through this work, we have collaborated with many Tennessee State Departments in the creation of Memorandums of Understanding or MOUs. These documents outline ways in which DRT and these departments can work together to enhance the lives of Tennesseans with disabilities.