Gap in State Infrastructure Impacts Developmentally Disabled

June 30, 2009 at 3:11 pm Leave a comment

Developmental Disability is generally defined under state and federal law as “severe, chronic disability; manifested before age 22; attributable to a mental or physical impairment; resulting in substantial functional limitations; likely to continue indefinitely; and requiring specialized supports and services.” Developmental conditions that we typically recognize include conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and spina bifida. DD may also include early onset disabilities such as spinal cord or brain injury acquired in the developmental stages of life. As diagnostics become more complex, we are seeing a number of less recognized, but equally severe conditions. While the state of Tennessee provides dedicated developmental services to persons with mental retardation (intellectual disabilities), there are no dedicated services for persons with other equally severe forms of developmental disability.

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities has no services and no funding for people with any form of Developmental Disabilities. Despite a legislative mandate in 2000 that changed the name from the “Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation” to the “Department Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities” and made persons with Developmental Disabilities eligible for services beginning in March 2002, the legislative intent was never carried out.

In order to address the state’s failure to meet the mandates of a series of federal court orders related to the depopulation of the state developmental centers, the Division of Mental Retardation was moved out of the Title33-mandated department to the Department of Finance and Administration under Executive Order of then-Governor Sundquist.

The courts essentially defined a “protected” DD population in the state of Tennessee. Even though there were people with all kinds of developmental disabilities (as defined above) living in the state’s large developmental institutions, the courts defined the entire group as being “mentally retarded.” In doing so, the courts hearkened back to a time in our country when people believed (and our laws thus reflected) that all people with developmental disabilities had “mental defects.” Obviously, we now know that there are many forms of developmental disability; some forms indeed impact intellectual capabilities. Other forms impact physical and even behavioral functions. The truth is that most developmental disabilities include multiple areas of affect.

All Developmental Disabilities funding went with the Division, and when that happened, children and adults with some of the most severe forms of developmental disability in our state were simply dropped out of the equation. Over the years, commissioners under various administrations have attempted to address this gap, but with no funding stream and no definitive “home” in state government for these families, their efforts have been fruitless.

Year after year, these families are told to wait until the state gets the problems with the Division of Mental Retardation Services solved; then their issues will be addressed. The only thing is, we never seem to get the problems with DMRS solved. This year, there has been much attention focused on the Division of Mental Retardation budget cuts, the Division’s long waiting list (6,000+), and the new Initiative on Aging. Yet few Tennesseans realize there is a group of severely disabled people, many of them children, who were aren’t even on the radar screen in our state. In effect, these families are told they are second class citizens with second class disabilities, not even worthy of a home in state government.


Entry filed under: General, News, Public Policy.

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