Remembering Floyd Dennis, J.D., disability civil rights advocate

Floyd Dennis, J.D.

Often when we consider civil rights in our nation, we fail to think of the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. With the passing of H. Floyd Dennis, J.D., the Kennedy Center and Peabody College, our state, and our nation lost a legal advocate who helped expand the civil rights of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Halbert Floyd Dennis, J.D., 89, professor of Special Education Emeritus, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, died on April 17, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, of cancer. A native of Shelbyville, Tennessee, Dennis served in the U. S. Air Force from 1951 to 1955, and then attended Vanderbilt University Law School, graduating in 1958.

Dennis had a lengthy and distinguished life of service to his fellow Tennesseans starting with representing the 18th District in the Tennessee State Senate and ending with his retirement as professor of Special Education.

From 1961 to 1967, Dennis served as Special Legislative Analyst to the Tennessee General Assembly, Assistant Attorney General for the 8th and 23rd Judicial Circuits, Special Counsel to the Tennessee Limited Constitutional Convention, and director of the Tennessee Criminal Law Revision Commission.

In 1967, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington asked him to investigate and to report to the Governor and the General Assembly on the status and needs of Tennessee’s citizens with intellectual disabilities. This led to his producing a Tennessee plan, a seminal policy document that was one of the first comprehensive state plans for this vulnerable population in the U.S. and used as a model by several other states.

Dennis became a nationally renowned legal theorist, activist, and prolific scholar in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities. He was a major early promoter and organizer of community services for persons with intellectual disabilities. At a time when these citizens were too often exploited, abused, and not valued by society, he worked tirelessly to improve both their inclusion in our communities and their access to equal protection under the law.

Dennis championed the principle of “normalization” not just in Tennessee but throughout the U.S. The term, used in the 1970s, is equivalent to today’s principles of community integration and inclusion, the commitment that persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including persons with severe disabilities, should be included in our families, schools, workplaces, and communities just as all other citizens are included.

Dennis helped formulate and pass both Tennessee’s Right to Education law and the federal counterpart, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, now IDEA, both of which guarantee children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.

Dennis either acted as a founding principal of or secured funding for virtually every community-based program for people with intellectual disabilities in Tennessee. He served as counsel or as an expert witness in multiple landmark federal cases challenging the widespread state governmental policy of “warehousing” its citizens with intellectual disabilities without any attempt at habilitation and integration into the community.

As a researcher in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (then the John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Education and Human Development at Peabody College), Dennis was founding director of the Kennedy Center Institute on Youth and Social Development. He formulated the concept of “County Agents for Children,” building and evaluating an advocacy model that was inspired by the successful agricultural county agents. This program was the forerunner of such present-day programs as Court Appointed Special Advocates, which recruits citizens to act as unpaid voluntary advocates for people with intellectual disabilities or mental health disorders.

Another notable Kennedy Center program that Dennis developed was a project to assist adolescents with intellectual disabilities in the juvenile justice system. As a nationally recognized expert in this area, he served as special consultant to various court systems including the Tennessee Supreme Court. He also advocated for community housing, contrasted to institutionalization.

“Floyd was a relentless advocate for the human and civil rights of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said H. Carl Haywood, Ph.D., professor of Psychology Emeritus and director of the Kennedy Center, 1971 to 1983.

Dennis served on both the President’s Committee on Intellectual Disabilities (its current name) and as an Official Delegate of the White House Conference on Children.

Floyd Dennis, J.D.

Floyd Dennis, J.D.

At Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Dennis served for several years as the Chair of the Department of Special Education, which is consistently ranked as our nation’s pre-eminent program in that field. He was director of Grant Development of Peabody/Vanderbilt University, and director of Programs for Special Educators of Peabody/Vanderbilt University.

“I took Floyd’s course on special education and the law as part of my ‘minor’ in special education, and loved it,” wrote Peabody alumnus William MacLean, Jr., Ph.D., senior scientist and associate director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin Madison. “He started the first class by saying ‘I am just a small-town country lawyer. I have no idea why they need a lawyer in the special ed department. I guess we’ll find out.’ He was all Peabody.”

Dennis is the author of numerous books and articles on law and special education, rights of children and adults with disabilities, and educational policy.

Dennis is predeceased by his wife, Elizabeth Tittsworth Dennis, and survived by his present wife, Pauline Privett Dennis; children John (Julie) Dennis of Brentwood, Tennessee, Tricia (Mohamed Mustafa) Dennis and Patrick Dennis of Chattanooga, Tennessee; grandchildren David Dennis of Franklin, Tennessee, Sarah Dennis Manners (Nick) of Nolensville, Tennessee, and Katherine Mustafa of Harrogate, Tennessee; and a great-grandson, Hayden Manners of Nolensville, Tennessee.

A memorial service was held on April 29 in Shelbyville, Tennessee. For those who wish to remember Dennis, the family suggests contributions to The Arc Tennessee, 151 Athens Way, #100, Nashville, TN, 37228; The Arc is one of the many organizations serving children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that Dennis championed.

Jan Rosemergy is director of VKC Communications and Dissemination. This remembrance relies heavily on the obituary provided by the Dennis family.

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