Advancing the Rights of People with Disabilities

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Photo of Viviana Bonilla López

Viviana Bonilla López is a 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Disability Rights Florida. Her Fellowship is sponsored by The Florida Bar Foundation. 

You co-founded Rethink: Psychiatric Illness, a student organization that aims to raise awareness about mental illness and increase help-seeking behaviors among students. What inspired you to combine your passion for mental health advocacy with a law degree?

I was diagnosed with ADHD in the second grade. From that point on jokingly being asked “if I took my meds today” became a reminder that I did not “work” as expected. Since then, other people I love have been diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Throughout my life, I have felt the need to be silent to protect them or myself from misconceptions, fear, and low expectations. Rethink was a response to that feeling; it was intended as a space where everyone could show up and be understood.

The social model of disability teaches us that disability does not stem from the individual; instead, it is caused by a society that has created barriers that keep people with disabilities from fully participating and punishes difference. Whether or not we are disabled, we all deserve the spaces we inhabit to be inclusive and accessible. I was motivated to go to law school because I wanted to contribute to that future we all deserve. Though I have come to understand that laws alone will not solve all the injustices faced by marginalized communities, I do my best to use it in my clients’ favor and offer it as part of a larger collective project to achieve justice.  

Throughout your career, you have worked on a range of civil rights issues, including serving immigrants and defending families. What inspired you to focus your Equal Justice Works Fellowship on protecting and restoring the civil rights of people with disabilities in Miami-Dade County?

 Our society either infantilizes or fears people with disabilities. This attitude is used to justify exclusion, unequal treatment, control, and the removal of rights. My job is to convince influential people that my clients can and should direct their lives, regardless of their disabilities. This is not something I, or anyone, should have to do. It should be obvious.

The structures and systems that oppress marginalized communities are all connected.

In law school, I sought internships and clinics to learn about those systems, especially those known to harm people with mental health diagnoses. Upon graduation, working in immigrant rights for two years—particularly at that moment—was an honor and opportunity for which I am grateful.

This Equal Justice Works Fellowship has been a homecoming. Disability justice work, particularly mental health advocacy, has always been my first love. I have been involved with this work for the past nine years. I proposed this fellowship project because I wanted to see what would happen if we put all our energy into challenging the notion that people with disabilities are not capable of making their own decisions. What would happen if we did this in the county in Florida where this notion is most pervasive?

Since 2001, the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida serving Miami-Dade County has had the most guardianship cases filed of all the judicial circuits in Florida. How does guardianship strip a person of their civil rights, and why is it important to propose alternatives to guardianship?

In Florida, a guardian is appointed after a judge decides that a person is “incapacitated.” A person under guardianship can lose some or all of their rights, including the right to get married, to vote, to decide where they live and who their friends are, to work, to manage their money, and to say yes or no to medical treatments, among others. How you choose to exercise these rights is what makes you, you. Guardianship is such a severe legal tool that it has been called “civil death.” This is why alternatives like Supported Decision-Making (SDM) are so important: They make guardianships unnecessary. SDM allows people with disabilities to be the authors of their own lives and make their own decisions with the support of people they trust.

What has been your proudest moment as a Fellow to date?

The disability community has a mantra: nothing about us without us. It demands that we do more than tokenize directly impacted people by using their stories. It requires that we honor the expertise that comes from living their stories and follow their lead. This is a value to which I have tried to hold my work. One of the things that makes me proudest is to co-chair SDM4FL—the coalition we have built to introduce and pass an SDM law in Florida—with Michael Lincoln, the first person in Florida to terminate his guardianship using SDM. Michael is a true leader who knows the power of his ideas and the power of his story, who isn’t afraid to challenge others, and who does the work. Through SDM4FL, I proudly work side-by-side with advocates and individuals who have been directly impacted by the guardianship system, including some of my clients and their parents, who became committed to this work after using SDM themselves.

To learn more about Viviana’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow