Educating Legislators and Policymakers Through Storytelling and Legislative Visits

March 13, 2023

A woman stands behind a man in a motorized wheelchair and smile as they pose with copies of Kindred Stories to hand out to legislators during Tennessee's Disability Day on the Hill.
A woman stands behind a man in a motorized wheelchair and smile as they pose with copies of Kindred Stories to hand out to legislators during Tennessee's Disability Day on the Hill.

Each year, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s (TN IDDRC, UCEDD, LEND) University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, in collaboration with The Arc Tennessee and AbleVoices, produces a collection of stories and images that highlight the challenges individuals with disabilities and their families face as they navigate service systems and supports in the state of Tennessee. Kindred Stories of Disability highlights a different topic in each issue and is shared with Tennessee legislators and policymakers to educate them with first-hand accounts from constituents in their districts.

2023 Kindred Stories of Disability: Mental Health and Disability
Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) report mental distress almost five times more often than adults without disabilities. Despite the prevalence, little is known about the best approaches for supporting the needs of people with IDD and co-occurring mental health challenges.

Individuals with IDD can experience any psychiatric disorder. However, unlike the general population, psychiatric symptoms are often attributed to their disability rather than mental illness. Additionally, it is difficult to find therapists who are trained and confident in treating individuals with disabilities. In comparison to the general population, people with disabilities often are not a part of research about mental health treatment and are not always considered when designing treatments.

Adults with IDD may not be able to participate in the traditional form of “talk therapy,” especially if they have communication challenges. Additionally, adults with IDD are more likely to live below the federal poverty level, and mental health care is not always sufficiently covered under insurance, if it is covered at all. These barriers make it extraordinarily difficult to properly address mental health concerns for adults with disabilities.

The stories shared in the 2023 issue of Kindred Stories of Disability show consistent themes. Tennesseans with co-occurring IDD and mental health concerns face:

  • Increased stigma due to disability and mental health concerns;
  • Feelings of isolation;
  • Lack of professional support and treatment options;
  • Inability to afford ongoing treatment; and
  • Lack of knowledge and vocabulary about mental health.

You can read the stories from the current issue of Kindred Stories of Disability and find past issues here.

Disability Day on the Hill
On Mar. 8, Tennesseans with disabilities, families, and supporters gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol for Disability Day on the Hill to advocate for the disability community in meetings with their legislators. Hosted by the Tennessee Disability Coalition, this year’s Disability Day on the Hill theme was “My Tennessee Life,” meant to highlight advocacy that makes Tennessee a better place for ALL to live. 

Alongside community partners, VKC faculty and staff and members of its Community Advisory Council, Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, Next Steps at Vanderbilt, and Transition Tennessee all were on site to educate and advocate.

Print copies of Kindred Stories of Disability were hand delivered to each Tennessee legislator thanks to coordination with The Arc Tennessee.

Matthew Gang, a Next Steps at Vanderbilt student and intern at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, recorded a video highlighting DDH activities and the experiences of his classmates as they advocated for inclusive transportation, medical care, education, and more.

Learn more about Disability Day on the Hill here.