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VOL. 112 | NO. 33 | Thursday, February 26, 1998

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By SUZANNE THOMPSON Through the front door Tennessee Protection and Advocacy Inc. serves as a watchdog to guard the rights of people with disabilities By SUZANNE THOMPSON The Daily News Disabilities come in all forms but what is common to most disabled people is the likelihood that at some point their rights will be violated in the workplace or community. That is where Tennessee Protection and Advocacy Inc. steps in as a protector and advocate of the rights of individuals with disabilities. "Were the watch dog, and the task is tremendous," said Shirley Shea, executive director of TPA in Nashville. TPA currently runs four programs in different areas of protection and advocacy as well as a client assistance program. The four programs address the areas of developmental impairment, mental illness, individual rights and assistive technology. Assistive technology, which varies by municipality, can range from closed-circuit televisions for visually impaired people to special spoons with rubber grips for individuals suffering from physical disabilities. Shea estimates there are about 500,000 people in Tennessee with disabilities or mental health problems ranging from psychosis to spinal cord injury to traumatic brain injury. The agency, which has an annual budget of about $1.2 million, is a private non-profit organization that is completely federally funded. Its main office is in Nashville, but there are smaller offices in Memphis and Knoxville. The group began in 1976 as a grass roots parents organization designed to serve as an advocate for disabled children in the school system. In 1978, the group formed Education Advocacy for Children with Handicaps or EACH. However, because there were so many issues in the disabled community that related to adults, the group changed its name to Effective Advocacy for Citizens with Handicaps in 1983, retaining the acronym EACH. At that time, EACH received a parent training grant under U.S. Public Law 94-142, which was the first statute to provide children with disabilities a free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In 1983, Gov. Lamar Alexander designated EACH as the states protection and advocacy system so the state could receive federal funds. The 1975 Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act required states to have a protection and advocacy system for people with developmental disabilities before they could receive funds. There is currently a protection and advocacy system in every state, Shea said. In May of 1991, EACH underwent another name change and became Tennessee Protection and Advocacy Inc. Over the years, TPA has taken more programs under its umbrella but the core of its work is serving as a teammate to individuals and helping them become an advocate for themselves. "When you have a disability, this is a life-long process. The situations change, but youre always having to ensure your own rights as an individual," Shea said. TPA staff members go into communities monthly to meet with disabled people and learn about their primary problems. The staff then formulate goals and objectives based largely on feedback from community members. TPA also now provides legal assistance for disabled people. Its 22-person staff includes two full-time attorneys. Gary Buchanan, one of TPAs attorneys, has worked with the agency for more than three years. Before joining TPA, he dealt with disability law cases in private practice and served as legal counsel for the Association of Retarded Citizens of Tennessee. He said the types of cases he handles on behalf of the organization range from abuse and neglect to employment discrimination. "A lot of things we deal with are on the cutting edge of the law. Academically, its challenging," Buchanan said. Shea said many problems are handled at the case advocacy level and do not require litigation but even without lawsuits, TPA can be a powerful organization. "We have authority that supersedes state authority when it comes to conducting investigations and getting information in terms of abuse and neglect," she said. In cases that do not require intervention, TPA handles information and referral, Shea said. The organizations toll-free number is (800) 342-1660. While the federal government limits the types of cases TPA can handle, one problem that never seems to go away is access, Shea said. "Its a crying shame that people with wheelchairs cant get into buildings. And Im not talking about going through the back door. Im talking about going through the front door."
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