Mithoff Pro Bono Program’s INCLUDE Project serves Aggies with disabilities

In fall 2020, the Mithoff Pro Bono Program’s INCLUDE Project hosted its first Supported Decision Making (SDM) Clinic for college students with disabilities. The INCLUDE Project partnered with Texas A&M’s Aggie ACHIEVE, a program designed to promote students’ independence and vocational goals. Law student teams supervised by faculty and volunteer attorneys convened on Zoom to advise Aggies enrolled in the program on using supported decision-making agreements (SMDAs) as an alternative to guardianship.

The Aggie ACHIEVE clinic opened with a presentation from Mithoff Pro Bono Program scholars Atticus Finch and Nick Markwordt, who helped organize the clinic. They had prepped two Aggies to present on the benefits of using the relatively new legal tool to their peers and family members.  After the presentation, Texas A&M students and their families met in Zoom breakout rooms with law student volunteers and supervising attorneys. Through roleplaying exercises, each team coached an Aggie on SDMAs – the law behind them, their usefulness, and how the Aggie might use an SDMA in daily life.  A number of participants decided to use SDMAs going forward.

The INCLUDE Project will host a similar clinic in the spring with E4Texas, a program of UT Austin’s Texas Center for Disability Studies that combines classroom instruction with practical career building experiences, independent living skills, and self-determination.

Supervising attorneys Lucy Wood (top left) and Neil Sicarelli (top center) helping law students provide information about SDMAs to a participating family.

“Supported Decision-Making Agreements, or SDMAs, are great tools to make sure people living with disabilities are getting the guidance and help they may want while preserving their autonomy,” said Atticus Finch, whose family members have benefited from the approach. “The SDMA-holder can get advice and help from their designated supporters on whatever they want, yet they still retain decision-making power.”

The Texas Legislature enacted the statute providing for SDMA’s in 2015. Since then, the INCLUDE Project has served over five hundred families. “We’ve done a lot of work with high school students and their families through partnerships with school districts,” said Professor Lucy Wood, who directs the INCLUDE Project. “We’re very excited to import our SDM clinic model to college settings, expanding the scope of the people we serve. We’re grateful to Aggie ACHIEVE for this opportunity.”