What’s Happening in Tennessee’s Independent Living Network?

A group of people with and without disabilities march with signs toward the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Catch up with our Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) and 6 Centers for Independent Living (CILs)

Just like the Developmental Disabilities Act created councils on developmental disabilities like ours in every state and U.S. territory, another federal law for people with disabilities – the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – created “centers for independent living” and a statewide council for those organizations. The purpose of these centers, often called “CILs,” is to help people with all types of disabilities:

  • Find information and community-based services they need
  • Connect to peer support from other adults with disabilities
  • Advocate at the individual and systems level for better supports
  • Get training for living more independently in their community
  • Transition towards more independent living, including helping youth transition to adulthood and helping those in institutions (like nursing homes) transition to community living

CILs are designed and led by people with disabilities. Every state also has a statewide independent living council that helps to coordinate the CILs in that state and develop a statewide plan to promote the “independent living” philosophy. This philosophy is rooted in opportunities for people with disabilities to have control over their own lives and services and play important roles in their communities. CILs across the country have played an important role in the disability rights movement.

Funding for CILs under the Rehabilitation Act in Tennessee comes through the TN Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services, which also operates the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program and many other disability services.

Learn more about the role that CILs play in supporting people with disabilities from this fact sheet from the Administration for Community Living, the federal agency that oversees both councils like ours and programs for independent living like CILs: https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/programs/2023-07/CIL_FactSheet_2023.508.pdf

Learn more about the history of CILs, including the key role they have played in the history of disability rights, from the National Council on Independent Living. About Independent Living (ncil.org)

So – what’s new with Tennessee’s independent living council and CILs? We asked them to update you on what they’re working on and how you can get involved in their work. Keep reading for more from this powerful network in our state.

A photo of Tennessee's racially diverse CIL directors posing on a D.C. sidewalk together during this year's conference

Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC)


If you could make sure all members of TN’s disability community knew one thing about the SILC’s purpose / work / impact, what would it be?

Tennessee's Statewide Independent Living Council works toward ensuring that all people with disabilities have access to community-based services for independent living.

What are some of the skills or strengths that SILC looks for when recruiting board members? If someone wants to get involved with the SILC, what should they do?

The Governor appoints 12 members to serve on the SILC, whose mission is to improve the lives of people with disabilities. By law, a majority of the SILC's volunteer council members must be people with disabilities, and their membership reflects a cross-section of the independent living movement in Tennessee. Members of the Council serve staggered three-year terms. We look for members who:

  • Believe strongly in equal access and equal opportunity
  • Are committed to the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society
  • Show honesty, integrity, and respect for others

SILC-TN wants Tennesseans to contribute their knowledge, experience, and contacts to our work. We benefit from the lived experiences of Tennesseans with varying types of disabilities, as well as those who are family members/caregivers of people with disabilities.  Other backgrounds that are needed are in areas such as finance, planning, public relations, writing, social media, etc.

For those interested in applying to serve on the SILC, visit www.silctn.org/become-a-member.html, complete the PDF application, and submit your resume.

The SILC recently led a statewide survey as part of developing the next state plan for independent living. Were there any surprises or big lessons learned from the responses? How will the results shape the SILC’s focus areas for the next few years?

Our biggest priority right now is developing the new State Plan for Independent Living (SPIL) for 2025 through 2027. We hosted community conversations to make sure people with disabilities across the state were engaged in the process. The goal of the SPIL is to ensure that Tennesseans’ voices are heard and that accessible services are helping people enjoy fuller, healthier lives, with greater independence. The SILC-TN will make sure that the goals outlined in the SPIL are met by continuous monitoring and reviewing.

TN’s independent living network recently sent representatives to the nation's capital for the annual conference of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). The NCIL conference is the longest-running national cross-disability, grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities. The conference features a variety of influential speakers and educational workshops. It ends with its annual iconic march to the Capitol on the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (July 26).

T.A.R.P. Center for Independent Living – Paris, TN


The T.A.R.P. Center for Independent Living is nestled in the rural landscapes of Henry County in northwest Tennessee. (TARP stands for the core functions of CILs: Training of Independent Living Skills and Transition; Advocacy for Individuals and Systems; Referral and Information; and Peer Counseling.) This non-profit organization stands as a beacon of support for people with disabilities, fostering independence and self-sufficiency.

T.A.R.P. is a valuable resource in our rural area, which includes Benton, Dickson, Henry, Houston, Humphreys, Montgomery, Stewart, and Weakley Counties. The scope of this service area spans about 3,900 square miles, housing a total population of 366,745. Notably, within this population, approximately 24%, or 88,019 people, are living with disabilities.

The T.A.R.P. Center's offerings encompass an array of programs designed to enhance various aspects of independent living. That includes the tools all CILs are designed to use: training, advocacy, referral, peer support, and transition.

"Training” is like a school that teaches important life skills. Think about things like cooking, handling money, and taking care of yourself. T.A.R.P. wants everyone to feel confident and capable in these areas.

The next tool is "Advocacy." This means standing up for what you believe in. T.A.R.P. helps people speak up for themselves. They also talk to important people to make sure that rules and laws are fair for everyone.

Have you ever been lost and needed directions? That's what "Referral" is like. T.A.R.P. knows about many helpful resources in the community. They can help you find doctors, job opportunities, and other useful things.

"Peer support" is like having a friend who truly gets what you're going through. T.A.R.P. connects people who have faced similar challenges. They talk and help each other out.

If someone is leaving a nursing home to go back to their own home, T.A.R.P. steps in to make sure it all goes smoothly. This is called "Transition." They also help young people who finish high school figure out what's next. This is called "Youth Transition."

T.A.R.P. administers the Family Support program, funded through the TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, for Benton, Carroll, Gibson, Henry, and Weakley counties. The program provides financial help to people with disabilities and their families for all sorts of disability-related needs.

Another notable service provided by the T.A.R.P. Center is the Durable Medical Equipment Exchange. This initiative addresses a critical gap in healthcare access by offering a loan program for essential medical equipment. With insurance limitations and financial barriers often hindering access to such equipment, we step in to fill this void, relying on public donations, local grants, and state funding whenever available.

The T.A.R.P. Center isn't just an organization; it's a lifeline for countless individuals seeking to lead more independent lives. Through our comprehensive programs and community-driven approach, it serves as a testament to the power of unity and support.  Visit https://www.tarp1.org/ to learn more about our work and get involved.

Jackson Center for Independent Living (JCIL) – Jackson, TN


JCIL was established in 1996 for people with disabilities in our area to have access to resources, services, and advocacy. Our programs are designed to provide access, training, encouragement, solutions, and open a wide range of possibilities and freedom of choice. We believe “Independent Living” is a way of life and a way of thinking about life. It is being in control and advocating for yourself.

Early in the pandemic, JCIL recognized the need to keep our community linked and informed.  To achieve this, we began a comprehensive program that included distributing 600 iPads, tablets, Chromebooks, and computers with the goal of ensuring digital connection.  In addition to providing hardware, we also held training on using Zoom and provided technical support.  To encourage “community,” we have held monthly events and classes on subjects including:  

  • voting rights,
  • cooking,
  • crafts,
  • travel,
  • book clubs,
  • holiday parties,
  • budgeting,
  • game days,
  • and more.

Many of our classes have been in collaboration with T.A.R.P.,  allowing each center to offer more to our consumers.

JCIL is excited for expanding our American Sign Language (ASL) classes in the community.  Through a partnership with the Jackson-Madison County Library, we are offering hybrid ASL classes that are both in person and on Facebook Live. The classes continue to grow and average 30-40 participants a week.

We are proud of our Home Sweet Home program that uses funding from United Way and other sources to provide home modifications that allow Tennesseans with disabilities to stay in their own homes.  Last year, we provided more than 200 pieces of durable medical equipment and built 70 ramps.  Each item makes a difference in someone’s life and choices.

JCIL is always looking for more community participation in our programs.  A person can volunteer to work in the office, teach a class, be a board member, pick up/drop off equipment to consumers, or help build a ramp. Visit www.j-cil.com/contact-us.html to reach out!

Disability Connection Midsouth – Memphis, TN


Disability Connection Midsouth is the new name for the long-time Memphis Center for Independent Living. For 38 years, people with disabilities have led this non-profit organization.

This agency not only has a new name and logo but also a new home at the First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young at 1000 S Cooper Street. Our entrance is off the back of the church with the blue door and maroon awning.

“The staff is excited about the new name and the move,” said Sandi Klink, the Executive Director of Disability Connection Midsouth. “I am excited about rebranding ourselves, the new opportunities for growth, advocacy, peer support, and shared vision for the community.”

Since 1985, Disability Connection has been the center of a network of action, information, and resources to assist people with disabilities to conquer barriers, overcome isolation, and end dependency. Today’s mission continues the work for full integration of people with disabilities in all aspects of community life.

Disability Connection encourages people with disabilities to work with staff and peers with disabilities to build a new, accessible, welcoming community. While Disability Connection will remain a Center for Independent Living, we have added Midsouth to our name to reflect regional outreach.

Disability Connection has a long history of advocacy for citizens with disabilities and is mostly known for support for accessible transportation, fair housing, and promoting the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability Connection will work to connect people with disabilities to options other than living in facilities and nursing homes. Disability Connection offers a transition program to assist people to live in their own home rather than an expensive institution. 

People with disabilities are a powerful and significant part of our community, yet as a group, our social roles have been marginalized by bigotry, discrimination, poverty, isolation, dependency, and pity. Americans with disabilities have not had access to transportation, housing, and employment that other citizens have enjoyed. Visit our new website at www.disabilitymidsouth.org to get involved and learn about our current work.

Empower Tennessee – Nashville, TN


Empower Tennessee – like all Centers for Independent Living – works on a model of people with disabilities helping one another navigate the various challenges and opportunities life throws at us. In that spirit, we offer multiple opportunities for people with disabilities to get involved, including our Peer Support groups, EmpowerCon webinars, Mental Health First Aid trainings, and other programs and events related to independent living.

During the pandemic, we moved quickly to address folks’ feelings of isolation and inability to connect in person by providing opportunities for peer support through virtual meetups and text threads. Those approaches remain popular as transportation and other barriers continue to make in-person meetings difficult. Our current peer support groups include:

  • Empowered Gents
  • Empowered Ladies
  • Living Your Best Empowered Life
  • BLAST, a technology support group for people who are blind or have low vision
  • Youth Leadership Academy, and
  • the Empowered Rainbow Crew, a therapeutic support group facilitated by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for LGBTQ+ people with disabilities.

In each of these offerings, clients meet with others to share, learn, and engage with their community. New groups form based on the interests and needs of our clients and community members.

We are fully aware of how emergencies can impact the people we serve, as our offices were destroyed by a tornado in 2020. In response, we host regular meetups for people to learn how to be prepared in an emergency. Clients can join one of our scheduled EmpowerCon Emergency Preparedness events or request a one-on-one planning session to develop their individualized emergency plan.

Through another new program, Empower Tennessee offers access to mental health services and resource navigation for our clients and community. We host discounted Mental Health First Aid training classes for Tennesseans with disabilities, the CIL network, and other people who work with people with disabilities in our state.

Empower Tennessee is also sensitive to the impacts of inflation and increased housing prices in our area. As resources become scarcer, we’ve redoubled our efforts to provide clients with resource navigation support as they apply for services and find ways to make ends meet.

One of our clients and his mom were unhoused for over 18 months, traveling long distances for doctor appointments, and sleeping in their car most days. During one of our EmpowerCon webinars, they learned about Empower Tennessee’s Living Your Best Empowered Life Peer Support group, which teaches participants about housing and employment resources. They began attending the group, building their network, and working with an Independent Living Specialist. Within a year, they received Section 8 funding to help pay for housing and found a beautiful, accessible space for the two of them. In the hopes of making the challenges they experienced easier for others, they have advocated with legislators, advisory councils, local citizens, and organizations to spread awareness about the scarcity of affordable and accessible housing.

We welcome members of our community to join us for an event, volunteer with us, and serve on our Board of Directors. Your support empowers others. Visit our website at https://empowertennessee.org/ to learn more and get involved.

Tri-State Resource and Advocacy Corporation (TRAC) – Chattanooga, TN


The Tri–State Resource and Advocacy Corporation was founded 36 years ago and is the second oldest Center for Independent Living in Tennessee, serving the largest number of counties.

TRAC has launched many successful programs, such as:

  • Feed the Need, which has provided more than 100,000 pounds of food to consumers. Many people told us that this program meant that they could now spend money on medicine.
  • Yearn-2-Learn teaches people to become more independent through identifying each person’s learning style and customizing the Independent Living skills classes for them.
  • Pair-n-Share is a program that provides people options to share housing costs through locating a roommate. This was launched to address the housing crisis that escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, TRAC maintained a position on the front lines with our consumers, as they requested. TRAC understood the term “essential” included us. We knew that consumers would need heightened services. TRAC’s current staff worked evenings and weekends during the pandemic. Our consumers needed us at different times and needed services delivered in different ways than they had before. Our ability to adapt is a poignant example of responding to a crisis without compromising service delivery. It is important to note that increased funding during this time was a critical component. Our consumers worked with a dedicated team of collaborators, staff, and volunteers on the front lines to meet the high demand for services, making this one of our most successful years.

disABILITY Resource Center – Knoxville, TN


The disABILITY Resource Center (dRC) is located in Knoxville, on Cross Park Drive.

In addition to the core services provided by all CILs, we’re proud to offer our “Disability Etiquette and Awareness” training to all types of community entities upon request. These presentations include our X-Treme Challenge, where participants learn to play “beep kickball.” This is a version of kickball using blindfolds and a ball and bases that audibly beep. Participants also complete a wheelchair obstacle course, play “Simon Says” using sign language only, and learn the basics of utilizing a white cane via our white cane walk. Having people without disabilities participate in our X-Treme Challenge helps attendees realize that people with a diverse range of disabilities can do all types of things, just in a different way. dRC also provides Disability Etiquette and Awareness training to our Knoxville Police Academy recruits, educating them regarding all types of disabilities, person-first language, service animal laws and ethics, etc. We emphasize the Independent Living Philosophy in every service and presentation we provide.

We have strong collaborations throughout our community, including the Mayor’s Council on Disability Issues, the Knox County Disability Advisory Council, the Knox Area Employment Consortium, and Knox Area Transit. Through these partnerships, we work to promote physical and programmatic equal access and inclusion. We work to get rid of the attitudinal barriers which people with disabilities confront in numerous areas of our daily lives.

To receive services or volunteer with dRC, you can contact us by calling 865-637-3666 or emailing mshipstad@drctn.org.