Why I'm against Conservatorship
Recently, the San Francisco board of supervisors (including progressives Mar and Ronan) voted to implement an aggressive measure to impose conservatorship on people who access emergency mental health services often. (Read more about that here.) Groups like Senior and Disability Action and the Coalition on Homelessness opposed the measure, advocating for the rights of people with mental illness to have access to voluntary services before they are in crisis rather than being conserved for ending up in crisis. After the rules committee members spoke in committee against the measure, when it came to a vote for the full board, only Walton voted no. Hillary Ronan and Gordan Mar, two "progressives" didn't speak against it and voted yes under the mayor's pressure.
I first learned about conservatorship as my brother reached 18 years old and registered to vote and for the selective service, as required of him by law. I learned of it in sentences like "He is his OWN guardian," spoken by my parents again and again as my brother signed legal documents for himself. Now, when I accompany my brother to appointments, often a receptionist will ask me to sign, and I repeat similar sentences as my brother reaches for the pen. Perhaps this is why my brother, unlike most adults, loves doing paperwork. It is a time where just by signing his name he gets to assert his rights and give a casual "F--- You" to the ableism that assumes he can't make his own decisions because of his down syndrome.
My brother has an intellectual disability, which means there are some things that he has a hard time understanding. But, there's plenty of things he does understand, and meanwhile he's way above average at reading people's emotions and telling hilarious jokes with perfect timing.
I, too, have a hard time understanding some things - such as medical or legal information. I know that on important things like this, it is important for me to ask for help from a trusted person that I know that can help me, and so I do. Sometimes I get more than one opinion before making a decision, and I weigh how much I trust the person giving advice heavily as I decide.
My brother does the same thing.
One thing about growing up with a brother with down syndrome is that you get to know lots of people with intellectual disabilities. As I think through my childhood friends, it's easy for me to imagine them most doing the same thing, too.
So why do so many of them have a guardian?
Some people argue that someone might take advantage of them. Yeah, that's true. But, I got news for you, that happens to the rest of us too... and I'm thinking about some big scale scams, like all those predatory loan scams I witnessed during the foreclosure crisis. People without any intellectual disability had the right to make their own decisions to sign terrible loan documents and lost their homes, and their family's generational wealth - but there, we blame the scammers and the big banks for their manipulation and greed, rather than blame the people who were taken advantage of or suggest that these victims should lose their citizenship because they got scammed. People with intellectual disabilities should have the same rights, even if they, too, make mistakes just like we do.
Many of my fellow siblings of people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are guardians - or will someday be the guardians - of their disabled sibling. I urge you to think about how your own internalized ableism is contributing to you continuing in this pattern, and how being in this role then furthers that internalized ableism.
There are people who should be conserved, who should have a guardian, but I think they are very few. I believe that people with mental illness and developmental/intellectual disabilities have the same rights as all of us - and I stand horrified that the SF board of supervisors passed such a dehumanizing policy, and stand most horrified that so-called progressives like Ronan and Mar voted for it.
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Claire Haas is the sister of a man with down syndrome, a musician, coach, and community organizer.