Taking part in elections, opening a bank account, making health-related or reproductive decisions – these are aspects of daily life that many of us take for granted. Making decisions about our own lives and having those decisions heard and respected is a right that we expect. However, this right is often not extended to people with intellectual, cognitive, psychosocial or mental health disabilities. 

These individuals often face barriers to having their equal right to legal capacity – the power to direct and make decisions about their own lives – recognized by others, and experience significant obstacles in exercising their legal capacity. This continues to be a reality despite the fact that the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) establishes the equal right to legal capacity (Article 12). 

We know that with appropriate supports and accommodations, many individuals with a disability have the capacity to make decisions about their own lives. Others, with more significant disabilities, can also have power over their own lives when their wishes and preferences are communicated on their behalf by a network of people who know and care about them. 

Barriers to legal capacity exist at many levels. While there is no question that laws and policies need to be changed, this is a long and difficult process, often requiring government support.[1] However, significant improvements in the way that people with disabilities are supported to make decisions are possible without changing the law!

Inclusion Canada, with financial support from Employment and Social Development Canada, is launching a new project focused on identifying the barriers to legal capacity that people with an intellectual, cognitive, psychosocial or mental health disability face, and developing practical solutions that can be implemented now. Empowering the Most Excluded: Practical Solutions for Exercising Legal Capacity and Supports for Decision Making will focus on decision-making in the areas of finance, health, and community supports and services. 

Our first step is to bring together community members including self-advocates, families, and professionals to learn firsthand about the barriers they are experiencing, their vision for the future, and what needs to change. We’re hosting discussions in communities in Manitoba, Ontario and Newfoundland. From those discussions, we’re going to work with these communities to develop and test tools designed to ensure that the right to legal capacity is understood and supported. 

We’re excited to see how small changes in practice by local financial institutions, healthcare providers and community service organizations will translate into people with disabilities having increased power and control over their lives in significant and meaningful ways.    

[1] Institutes for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society (IRIS) is currently engaged in a project looking at legislative-level change and legal capacity.