Barriers to Independent Living: Conservatorship and Institutions

Published May 25, 2022

The Independent Living Movement exists to protect, support, and encourage people living with disabilities to live independently. However, there are many barriers to independent living. We examine conservatorship and the many institutions still operating throughout the United States. 

What is conservatorship and how is it a barrier to independent living?

Also known as Guardianship, a conservatorship is a system whereby relatives or guardianship organizations are nominated as managers of a person with disabilities’ estate and/or care. Britney Spears recently escaped her own conservatorship after a lengthy 14-year battle. 

Some guardianships control finances, whereas others control personal and medical decisions. This can even allow conservators to control their client’s personal health, such as birth control and pregnancy. Although this level of control over someone’s life looks scary, the scheme was set up so that families of people with severe disabilities could manage their estates and medical care when they were too unwell to do this themselves. 

It is clear from the amount of control conservatorship allows over a person with a disability’s life that it is a barrier to independent living. Many people living under conservatorship aren’t allowed to seek or attend employment, and they don’t have any control over their own finances. Conservatorships are also notoriously difficult to get out of once they have been set up. For example, if the person’s health improves, or new ways to manage their conditions come to light.

What are institutions and how are institutions barriers to independent living?

Institutions such as assisted living facilities and supported accommodation are slowly being phased out across the USA. However, they still exist, and institutions, in particular, are significant barriers to independent living. 

When someone with disabilities lives in an institution, they usually do not control most aspects of their own life. Many residents of institutions also live under conservatorship, whether this is held by a relative or a professional guardianship organization. 

Supported accommodation is a better option, but it can still leave residents too dependent on the support they get. However, supported accommodation offers more independence than conservatorship and institutions do. However, even those in supported accommodation can also have a guardian or live under conservatorship. 

Nevertheless, institutions are sometimes the only sensible option for many people who can’t live independently and don’t have a suitable carer at home. Sometimes, an institution is required for someone living with complex medical conditions or developmental disabilities.

It’s unlikely you’ll encounter an employee living in an institution during your business activities, but you may find someone living under conservatorship or in supported accommodation. Your employee’s work routine and finances are likely managed by someone other than them, and it may be worth double-checking this. For example, find out if there is a support worker or conservator you should speak to about certain things and what is acceptable to speak directly to your employee about. It’s very easy for someone to abuse a person living under conservatorship or in an institution, so you may want to pay extra attention to this employee, in particular, to help maintain their safety.

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