Guardianship and Supported Decision Making

I’ve seen a lot of online discussion promoting complete independence for people with disabilities. And I do promote independence, but not everyone with a disability will be able to achieve complete independence. A lot of times these posts also shame families that choose some kind of guardianship for their loved one with a disability. I know its a tough choice for many people and I don’t think shaming people who do not choose the same path as you is okay.

As a family we choose to go with a continued tutorship for Joel but we will be practicing supported decision making informally with that. Louisiana (where we live) only has three options for people with disabilities and their families seeking some sort legal protection for adults with disabilities. We have: Interdiction, limited interdiction, and continued tutorship. Continued tutorship is the least restrictive but you have to do before they turn 18, other wise you’ll have to choose another option.

Under a continued tutorship Joel:

  • Loses the right to consent to medical and educational plans
  • he does not lose the right to vote
  • he does not lose the right to marry but will require permission from tutor
  • he does lose ability to appear in court, so he cannot be sued but rather if anything should happen, his tutor will have to appear in court
  • he loses ability to buy or sell real estate and cannot enter into contracts

Just so you have an idea of what a continued tutorship entails. There is a lot more details and even some uncertainties, but we feel this is safer than leaving him without protections. Working in the field that I do, I come across countless families that assume they do not need to do anything like this because they believe the disability is obvious. I have had cases or have heard stories where parents weren’t allowed in IEP meetings, a person with a disability refused important medical treatment, a person with a disability signed over their SSI checks to a stranger, multiple cases where someone with developmental disabilities was jailed for a mistake or inappropriate behavior, and where a girl with autism married a guy she met online and signed everything she had to him. There are so many scary things that can happen, and I just want to make sure Joel and any other families who may not know about this gets educated and can protect their loved ones.

Now a little bit about Supported Decision Making, it promotes self-determination, control and independence. It’s a method of developing decision-making skills by relying on supporters to assist the person in collecting and processing information, and coming to a reasoned decision. Instead of having guardians or caregivers make decisions for them, supported decision-making enables them to make their own decisions with help from a trusted group of supporters.

In some states Supported Decision-Making is an alternative legal agreement to guardianship in that it provides a trusted environment for individuals who are seeking assistance with decision-making while still promoting self-determination. In contrast to guardianship, Supported Decision-Making is flexible and can change with the needs of the individual to provide more opportunities for independence. In some states, Supported Decision Making is an alternative legal document to other guardianship options. In Louisiana, you can practice Supported Decision Making informally or have it go hand in hand with whatever guardianship option you and your family chooses. You and your family just have to make sure you have it all written out in a legal document with your lawyer.

If you live in Louisiana and don’t know what guardianship options you have, check out the Legal Status Guidebook provided by the Advocacy Center:  Legal Status in LA For other states, here is some broad Guardianship Options

As I mentioned earlier, we chose to go with a continuing tutorship for Joel because we wanted to make sure he always has documentation to fall back on. But we still practice supported decision making when we can. Although he can’t verbalize a lot, we find ways to incorporate his opinions and his likes and dislikes into certain decisions.  We know his limitations and the world is full of dangerous people that can take advantage of him. So if he ever signs somethings that he shouldn’t, he’s protected.  We also wanted to protect him against himself. If he didn’t have the documentation and he refused medical treatment at some point, the doctors could refuse to give him treatment. Because of his limitations, he may not realize that medical treatment can be life or death situations. In my brother case, his supporters are made up of me, our sister, and our parents.

Supported Decision Making Guide

Many times we see that people with disabilities have someone else make their decisions and we want to encourage you to find your voice and having a part in your own decision making.  I know it can be hard so you don’t have to do it alone. The word supported means that you will have people backing you up. I think that everyone with a disability should be practicing supported decision making some capacity. It may look different for everyone and that’s okay.

First thing you will need to ask yourself is: Who can be in your group of supporters? Typically, we all seek our own circles of support and engage in supported decision-making in some way already. Depending on the issue, we reach out to families or friends, coworkers or classmates, or someone we trust before we make certain decisions like, changing jobs, making a big purchase, or whether or not you should sign something. A lot of times we consult with others, and then we decide on our own.

Likewise, people with disabilities may need assistance making decisions about a lot of very important things like living arrangements, health care, lifestyles and financial matters. But for some, just because they may need help making these decisions, it doesn’t mean they need a legal guardian to make those decisions for them. Some will and that’s okay! What they might need instead is a trusted group of supporters to answer their questions and help review their options.

When choosing supporters, ask yourself/loved one with a disability:

  • Does this person know my likes and dislikes?
  • Is this person trustworthy?
  • How do you know this person?
  • How long have I known this person?

You don’t’ want to ask someone you just met or even someone you met online. It is very important that you select supporters who know and respect the person with a disability’s preferences. Another important aspect is that the supporters honor the choices and decisions that the person with a disability makes. Supporters can be family members, co-workers, friends or someone you trust.

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of a vending machine full of food. You’re hungry and you know you have some change in your pocket, but you don’t know how to count it. How do you decide what to do?

  • You could start putting money in the machine and pressing buttons until something falls out.
  • You could also just give all your money to someone else without saying anything and hope they buy you something.
  • But neither option is likely to get you what you want.

Putting money in the machine and pressing buttons is what it’s like to live without support when you need assistance in decision-making. It doesn’t mean you don’t know what you want or you can’t make informed decision. It just means you don’t have or lack the support you need.

Giving your money and decision-making authority to someone else is guardianship. You lose any ability to participate in the decision-making process, including choosing what decisions need to be made.

If you can think of any alternative besides putting your money in the machine and giving your money to someone else, you’ve chosen Supported Decision-Making. You’ve kept yourself as a critical part of the decision-making process and you’ve asked for the support you need to make a decision. Support can come in all forms and can be tailored your needs and your specific circumstances.

There are many people with disabilities that have some sort of guardianship and still make decisions. As I mentioned earlier, you can be detailed in your documentation with your lawyer on what decisions your loved one with a disability can make on their own, who can make other important and complicated decisions and who can help them make decisions. I don’t’ want to sound like I’m against guardianship because some people will really need it. Whether or not you and your family file for guardianship is a personal decision that should be carefully made after reviewing all of your options and considering all of your needs, limitations, and emergencies.

For more on Supported Decision Making visit: SDM Guide



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