45 Years of Impact Spotlight
Fighting For the Autonomy of People with Disabilities
Disability Rights Pennsylvania (DRP), with generous funding from the Pennsylvania Interest on Lawyers’ Trusts Accounts (IOLTA) Board, has been supporting the effort of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to prevent and reduce the number of unnecessary guardianships of people with intellectual disabilities, autism, brain injury, mental illness, and similar disabilities through direct legal representation and targeted outreach and education about effective guardianship alternatives. DRP’s advocacy in this area has resulted in positive outcomes for individuals with disabilities and their families. In the expansion of this program, DRP is advocating for individuals with disabilities so they can exercise independence with appropriate support and thrive in their communities without the need for legal guardianship.
In re Sabatino – In 2014, we represented a young man with autism and an intellectual disability who was subject to a guardianship petition. After losing at the Orphans’ Court, we appealed the Court’s appointment of a limited guardian for this client. In addition to contesting his need for guardianship, we appealed the court’s removal of DRP as counsel for the client; its appointment of another attorney to represent him; and the appointed attorney’s advocacy in favor of the appointment of a guardian contrary to the man’s express desire to oppose guardianship. While we were ultimately unsuccessful in our appeals, this case contributed to our ongoing advocacy on the issues of right to counsel for people subject to guardianship and less restrictive alternatives to guardianship.
DRP has also advocated for the autonomy of people with disabilities through the filing of various amicus briefs.
In re Peery – In 1998, DRP filed an amicus brief in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this landmark case that narrowly interpreted Pennsylvania’s guardianship law. The case involved a woman with intellectual disability whose brother filed a guardianship petition. The woman did not want him to be her guardian and argued that she had adequate supports to help her make decisions. The Superior Court held that guardianship was appropriate because her use of supports to help her with decision-making established that she lacked capacity to make decisions. In our amicus brief we took issue with the Superior Court’s reasoning, arguing that the availability of supports to assist with decision-making is evidence that guardianship is not necessary. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court’s decision, holding that guardianship should not be imposed if a person has adequate community supports, writing: “We have no difficulty concluding … that a person cannot be deemed incapacitated if his impairment is counterbalanced by friend or family or other support.”
In re D.L.H. – In 2009, DRP filed an amicus brief in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this important case concerning a guardian’s right to refuse life-preserving treatment for a person who does not have an end-stage medical condition or is not in a permanent vegetative state. The lawsuit involved a resident of Ebensburg Center who was hospitalized with aspiration pneumonia. The doctors expected him to make a full recovery if he was placed on a ventilator to stabilize. The man’s parents, who were his guardians, refused to authorize the doctors to place him on a ventilator. The Department of Human Services (“DHS”) disagreed, and the doctors placed him on a ventilator. He recovered within a few weeks and was removed from the ventilator and returned to Ebensburg Center. In the interim, the Orphans’ Court denied the guardians’ petition for authority to withhold life-preserving treatment. The Superior Court affirmed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the guardians’ appeal. We filed an amicus brief in support of DHS, arguing that Pennsylvania law did not confer authority on guardians to withhold or withdraw life-preserving treatment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed, ruling that guardians can never authorize doctors to withhold treatment necessary to preserve the life of persons in their care who do not have end-stage medical conditions or who are not permanently unconscious.
In re Estate of C.W. – In 1993, DRP filed an amicus brief in the Pennsylvania Superior Court in support of a woman with intellectual disability whose mother and guardian sought court authorization to have her sterilized. Although the court ultimately upheld the trial court’s decision to allow the sterilization to go forward, our brief described the tragic history of sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities in this country.