Dec 15, 2021

MAMH Board member, Robert "Bob" Fleischner speaks on disability justice, the use of Supported Decision-Making as tool for equity, and the multiple ways we can all be advocates for systems change.

Robert Fleischner is the former Assistant Director at the Center for Public Representation and has been practicing mental disability law since 1973. A Boston College Law School graduate, Robert has litigated community integration, civil commitment, prison mental health, juvenile justice, guardianship and fair housing cases. Recently, he has been working with disability rights advocates from more than 20 nations on access to justice issues under international law.

How did you become involved with MAMH?
My first involvement with MAMH was in Brewster v. Dukakis in the late 1970s. The Center for Public Representation (CPR) represented MAMH in that litigation, which resulted in the closure of Northampton State Hospital and development of a comprehensive, community-based system to support people with mental health conditions. Steven Schwartz, now CPR’s Litigation Director, and I were the lawyers for MAMH, as well as the plaintiff class in that case and I’ve had a relationship with MAMH ever since. I have been a Board member since 2006.

What are the intersectional ties between disability-justice work and mental health?
Historically, there's been too many distinctions drawn among people with disabilities. Common interests and problems too often have been relegated to one disability advocacy group advocating for one issue and not always understanding the interests that other people with disabilities have. Over the past decade or so, those barriers have broken down through cross-disability coalitions whose members collaborate on issues affecting a large community of people with disabilities, regardless of whether they’re mental health disabilities, cognitive, developmental, physical disabilities, brain injuries. Many of the issues affecting these groups are the same; they really have to do with integration into mainstream culture and communities, access to programs and services, and ending stigma. Those things apply to everybody. Equal treatment by criminal and civil justice systems and Supported Decision-Making are examples of that.

What is Supported Decision-Making?
Supported Decision-Making is a tool which is designed to enhance and enable people with disabilities to make decisions for themselves without interventions and without other people making those decisions for them. A person might have some difficulty in making decisions for themselves, but providing that person with support so that they can make their own decisions rather than taking away their decision-making is what supported decision making is all about. It applies equally to people with a wide range of disabilities. MAMH has been a leader in understanding and working across disability groups to promote these advances for people regardless of the label that's placed on them.

“People with mental health disabilities often are forced to interact with systems in our state and our country in ways that are negative, demeaning, and disempowering. We all need to work together to change that.”

The common issue when regarding individuals with disabilities is competency and how usually they aren't viewed as being competent to make their own decisions. How can implementing something like Supported Decision-Making in Massachusetts, promote wellness for everybody?
There's an international movement to rethink what competency and capacity means. Countries around the world are reformulating their concepts of what it means to have capacity and ways that a person's capacity are interfered with. Many countries are ahead of the United States in thinking about this. Peru and Colombia, for instance, have essentially eliminated guardianship. One of the ways rethinking capacity has been happening in the United States is by recognizing people's ability and right to make their own choices, with support if needed, instead of appointing someone else to make decisions for them.

How can all of us be better allies for people with disabilities?
One of the most important ways to be an advocate is through personal relationships with a person who has a disability and providing that person with support, helping that person when they need it, and respecting the person's right to be their own individual and make their own decisions. There are also multiple ways to be systems advocates. We can all advocate for issues that are important to us, our families, and people with disabilities generally. We can advocate with our friends, to our legislators, to policy makers, and to leaders of the criminal and civil justice systems. People with mental health disabilities often are forced to interact with systems in our state and our country in ways that are negative, demeaning, and disempowering. We all need to work together to change that.

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