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Port St. Lucie man becomes champion for disability rights after winning landmark case

Florida bill would help preserve rights of people with disabilities
Posted at 5:40 PM, Mar 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 18:37:11-04

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Many people probably don't think twice about their everyday rights and freedoms like applying for a job, voting, or getting married.

But under a court-ordered guardianship, people with special needs often don't have the same opportunities.

However, a Port St. Lucie man is paving the way for some people with intellectual disabilities to change that.

Michael Lincoln, 25, is often happiest behind the wheel of his van equipped with flashing security lights. He also keeps his Guardian Angels badge and handcuffs nearby.

"I just like helping people," he said.

Michael Lincoln
Michael Lincoln reached out to Disability Rights Florida, who helped him become the first person in Florida to get out of a guardianship.

Being able to work various private security jobs is a dream come true after years of being told he couldn't do this. He aged out of foster care in 2014.

Because of his intellectual disabilities, he had to go to court to be considered for guardianship in an attempt to keep his rights.

"The judge didn't really listen to me, so there was nothing I could really do," Lincoln said.

But he was ordered by a court and appointed a guardian, who he didn't know, and lost his rights.

"The right to vote. The right to get married. The right to chose where I wanted to live. The right to socialize with friends," Lincoln said.

This included the right to chose where to work. His guardian wouldn't approve of a security job. Lincoln said he was also kept from seeing family and friends, prompting him to contact law enforcement.

"When I was being relocated and being held hostage from my family was when I said, 'That’s a little too far,'" Lincoln said.

The group Disability Rights Florida helped him go back to court in 2016.

Lincoln became the first person in the state to get out of guardianship by using what's called supported decision-making.

"I live my life and do whatever I want," Lincoln said.

He now gets to choose his network of people he trusts to help him make big decisions.

"Mike is a perfect example of a guardianship that should have never happened and a guardianship that was overly restrictive," said Viviana Bonilla Lopez, an attorney who works with Disability Rights Florida.

Viviana Bonilla Lopez, attorney who works with Disability Rights Florida
"That's what made his case unique. The judge saying, 'OK, there’s a finding of incapacity but supported decision making is a better way to do this,'" said Viviana Bonilla Lopez, an attorney who works with Disability Rights Florida.

She feels there are not enough alternatives to the stricter guardianship program.

"Guardianship is not one size fits all," Lopez said. "I’m still pretty concerned about the number of people who are in guardianships who don’t need to be in it and could get out," Lopez said.

Lincoln and Lopez are both part of SDM4FL, Supported Decision Making 4 Florida, which is a coalition supporting Senate Bill 1010 and House Bill 681.

It would allow people with disabilities to keep their rights, requiring judges to specifically consider Supported Decision Making before taking away someone’s rights.

The bill also includes a sample supported decision-making agreement and explains the responsibilities of supporters.

"He's come to a point now where he's leading a coalition and helping draft a bill that would allow people to use the same tool that changed his life," Lopez said.

"I would have been doing security a long time ago," Lincoln said. "I kept saying to myself there’s no possible way I'm going to let someone go through what I went through."

The bill is currently moving through Florida House and Senate committees.

Click here to learn more about the bill.