Disabled Enough: The Thing About #FreeBritney That Bugs Me


I am one thousand percent team #FreeBritney. I have to admit, however, that something about the movement doesn’t sit right with me.

A photograph of a microphone against a blurred background
If you’re not up on the news, the queen of 2000s pop, Britney Spears, is currently in a conservatorship. A conservatorship, known more commonly as a guardianship, is when someone has a legally appointed person who manages their affairs. A conservatee is an adult, typically one with disabilities that make it not possible for them to manage their own finances or personal matters. Britney’s arrangement, more specifically her desire to end it, has been in the news a lot lately. Just Google #FreeBritney, if you want to learn more.

Guardianships are designed to protect people who cannot take care of themselves. Britney and her fans argue that she has been put into this guardianship for control, rather than care.

According to The New Yorker, “since the establishment of Spears’s conservatorship, she has released four albums, headlined a global tour that grossed a hundred and thirty-one million dollars, and performed for four years in a hit Las Vegas residency. Yet her conservators, who include her father, Jamie Spears, have controlled her spending, communications, and personal decisions.” “Personal decisions” include her use of birth control, daily medications, physician choice, spending, and when she can see her boyfriend or leave her home.

Britney has asked for her father to be removed as conservator, and at least, have someone else appointed, but that request was denied by a judge earlier this year. Britney has recently been allowed to hire her own lawyer to argue – again- for her father to be removed as her conservator. On August 13th, her father agreed to be removed as one of her conservators.

My own child may be in a guardianship someday.

And while I know that her father and I would never take advantage of her for financial gain, that’s not the case for everyone in these arrangements. According to the Department of Justice, in 2017 there were 1.3 million people in legal guardianships in the United States who had more than $50 billion in assets being managed by their guardians. That’s a lot of people and a lot of money.

What is happening to Britney Spears, and I’m sure others, is truly horrific. Guardianships were designed to protect people, not control them. Every person, whether in a guardianship or not, has the fundamental and inalienable right to be included in making decisions about their body. And in the case of an individual who is unable to make healthy decisions, a guardianship can help.

But there is something deep within the conversation surrounding #FreeBritney that hasn’t sat right with me. People keep saying that Britney’s “not disabled enough” to justify having no say in her life.

My question is this: what is “disabled enough?” What is “disabled enough” to necessitate that another person makes unilateral decisions about another’s body and mind?

Saying that Britney Spears is not disabled enough to be eliminated from conversations about her own life implies that some people are this disabled. At what point does it become okay to deny an individual’s agency? When is it allowable to erase the opinion of a person from discussions about their life? When is it ethical or legal to require “care” that causes harm, because someone else thinks it’s helping?

Personally, I don’t think there’s a point at which the removal of a person from decisions made about their body is ever just, humane, or remotely okay. In sharing this with a friend, they pointed me to a video by disability rights activist Imani Barbarin (@crutches_and_spice on IG) where she summed it up perfectly:

“A lot of you are upset not because she is a disabled person who is treated this way, and that a lot of disabled people are treated this way, but because she’s not disabled enough to be treated this way. and therin lies the problem.”

Yes, that’s the exact thing. See, to say that someone is “disabled enough” for their opinions to be ignored and harmful treatments administered strips them of their humanity. All people, disabled or not, have the right to self-govern, even when they need a conservator.

For example, just two weeks ago it was announced that even though the FDA put a ban on electroshock therapy as a means to stop self-harm or aggressive behavior, a Massachusetts school for children and adults with developmental disabilities is exempt and can continue the practice. This means that students of this school can be shocked against their will as a means of treatment.

My question rises again: what makes someone “disabled enough” to be subjected to medical procedures that harm them?

The FDA banned the use of electroshock devices to stop self-harm and aggressive behavior because, after many studies, it was concluded that they caused worsening symptoms like “depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage.” Additionally, many people who undergo electroshock for self-harm and aggression have developmental disabilities that negatively impact their ability to communicate pain level. The FDA declared the banning of these devices “necessary to protect public health.”

I read about #FreeBritney, or the students at the MA school being shocked against their will or any of the other countless stories of abuse disabled people experience in the name of care, and my question once again cycles to the forefront of my thoughts.

My real issue with the “disabled enough” statement has less to do with legality and lines. It hits a nerve because I don’t think there’s a point at which someone is ever “disabled enough” to be subjected to abuse.

A woman and preschool child sit next to eachother, both smiley widely.

A more personal example is from earlier this year, when we were trying a new type of therapy for my autistic daughter. It came recommended by doctors, educators, and therapists. All of the professionals said it was what was “best.”

This therapy involved setting up a laptop so a stranger could watch my daughter perform tasks. On a particularly rough day, she began to have a meltdown. Typically when a meltdown occurs, my daughter is unable to speak coherently. She mustered all of her energy and very clearly asked me to close the computer. The therapist on the other end, who I never met in person, told me to stay strong. I continued to deny my child’s requests, and eventually, she slammed the laptop shut and screamed, “I don’t want that lady watching me!”

I learned a lesson that day. I realized that I was not willing to compromise my child’s mental health and wellbeing for the sake of “success” in therapy. In my daughter’s eyes, I was allowing a stranger to observe her at her most vulnerable. I was making her safe space unsafe.

When my daughter was calm, I emailed the therapist and said the session was over. We would not be reopening the laptop. In that very moment, I became firm in the belief that no gold star from a professional would ever be worth jeopardizing my child’s trust in me to take care of her.

So, one last time… when is someone “disabled enough” to have their trust so deeply violated? When is someone disabled enough that we ignore their clear communication of a boundary?

In this very moment, as I sit snuggled on the couch next to my beautiful, disabled child, I can only come up with one answer: never. There will never be a point at which it is okay for her to lose choice in a way that causes her mental or physical harm.

Yes, #FreeBritney. But not because she is famous, entertaining, or beloved. #FreeBritney because she is human.

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