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Breaking Ground 101 - Council Member View – Disability Day on the Hill

By Sarah Cripps, Member of the Council on Developmental Disabilities, Upper Cumberland District
A group of 15 Council members, staff, and two interns are pictured on the stage in the TN Old Supreme Court Chambers after the Disability Policy Alliance program, “State of TN Disability Services”, held during the 2020 Disability Day on the Hill. It is a diverse group of adults with and without disabilities of various ages and ethnicities from across TN. On a later page there is also a photo of Governor Bill Lee speaking at the event at a podium in front of a crowded room
TN Council on Developmental Disabilities staff, members and interns, Feb. 2020

In the past, government has been content to keep those of us with disabilities at the edges of society.  After attending Disability Day on the Hill at our State Capitol on February 4, I am convinced that such old ideas have been laid to rest once and for all. 

As a newer member of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities – my term began in September 2019 – I had never attended such an event. A diverse group of Tennesseans attended the 2020 Disability Day on the Hill. This included people with disabilities, family members of those with disabilities, and disability rights advocates.  In fact, this was the best-attended Disability Day on the Hill to date.

The morning session and panel discussion were held in our historic Old Supreme Court Chambers in the Capitol.  Governor Bill Lee spoke and, by his presence and through his remarks, showed his commitment to improving the lives of all disabled Tennesseans.

A panel discussion gave attendees the chance to hear personally from members of the executive branch who oversee disability services across our state.  These include leaders from the Commission on Aging and Disability, the Department of Education, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD), the Department of Labor and Work Force Development, the Department of Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation, the Bureau of TennCare, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. 

Each panelist shared news about current programs and services as well as new programs at each agency.  For example, we learned that the Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS) will no longer be under the Department of Education, but will now be under DIDD.

The Council on Developmental Disabilities was well-represented on this panel by Council Member Clancey Hopper of the Mid-Cumberland Region.

Another highlight of the day was listening to comments from both Senator Becky Massey and Representative Sam Whitson about their work on disability issues, such as the passage of the Katie Beckett Waiver.

The Disability Coalition provided lunch, and many of us used this time to network informally.

During the afternoon, members of the Council met with their state representatives and senators. We shared our stories and discussed issues that matter to us all. That might be a lack of employment opportunities, improving voters’ access to polling locations,  the need for accessible transportation, or the need for adult changing tables. 

These meetings give those of us with disabilities a rare moment to inform our legislators about areas state services can be improved or where services are lacking.  The importance of such meetings cannot be overstated. They “put a name and a face” to our disability for lawmakers to recall when deciding whether or not to sponsor a particular bill.

Disability does not discriminate. Every person is in some way affected, either directly or indirectly, by physical, developmental, and/or intellectual disabilities.  I have been blind since birth and am acutely aware of the obstacles that daily confront the visually impaired.  However, because I attended Disability Day on the Hill, I now have more insight into and knowledge about services that benefit other disabled persons. 

I left the 2020 Disability Day on the Hill feeling heartened. Our lawmakers are more aware than ever of the needs of the disability community and of how laws may be changed and funding made available to address these pressing concerns.

Author bio: Sarah Cripps was appointed to the Council on Developmental Disabilities by Governor Bill Lee in 2019. She is a general practice attorney and family mediator in Smithville and is specially trained in domestic violence issues. She is married to Mack Garner, loves to travel and eat dessert first, and promises never to cook you dinner.