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Britney Is Free. Now Let's Free Others.

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The year was 1998, I was 15, and I used crying as a way to manipulate my parents into letting me go to a Backstreet Boys concert. It was a great concert, by the way. So I get it, we are happy for Britney Spears. Britney is free! Y2K pop fans, rejoice! And while I may be coming off as a bit flippant, the truth of the matter is — this is indeed a human rights win. Yes, we can be happy for Britney! Her conservatorship, at least according to what I’ve read, took away her autonomy.  She was deprived of her right to self-governance of both her personal and financial choices. What we didn’t know, until recently, was just how much she wanted out of all this. She had been trying for nearly a decade. Now the courts agree, and she has been released from the unwanted arrangement. #FreedBritney


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A post shared by Britney Spears (@britneyspears)

Now, who is going to be next?

I propose we need to dig deeper, because there are huge populations who don’t have a hashtag, and they should.

Millions of people all over the world are living under formal conservatorships. In some settings, this can also be referred to as guardianship, which is often used interchangeably, but may have distinctions. According to the National Council on Disability, an estimated 1.3 million people were under guardianship in the USA as of 2018. In Canada, where I’m located, there do not appear to be national statistics, and the same can be said for other regions. There is often a huge lack of oversight and regulation of this sort of thing, which also varies from place to place.

Commonly folks under a conservatorship will fall within certain demographics. Individuals who have mental illness, physical or mental disability, and the elderly make up the lion’s share of the statistics. These individuals don’t even have the right to contest their guardianships and are vulnerable to financial and other forms of abuse. People with health conditions who might need support may also be under something like an informal conservatorship. This is a form of coercive control that is purposefully or mistakenly asserted by family, friends, a workplace, or even in medical settings.

In my opinion, it’s under this “informal umbrella” where there can be a very insidious type of control. A type of control that comes with real strings attached. Within social support programs, getting help can coincide with a loss of autonomy, maybe not in all aspects of one’s life, but certainly in some.

These are the types of things I’ve noticed:

  • Need free therapy? OK, this program will accept you, but if you miss one or two sessions, you’re out. Also, you can’t choose who you see or for how long. Really, you have no choices.
  • Need help with groceries?  OK, you can get these exact items and nothing else. Don’t like this type of food? Too bad for you.
  • Not able to make it to your yearly program review, no matter the reason? You lose benefits. More than 10 minutes late? You’re out.
  • Fill out these numerous forms to get what you need. You have multiple barriers, including reading and writing comprehension? Not our problem.
  • Need housing? This one place is your choice, take it or leave it. It doesn’t matter if it removes you from your community supports, or if you feel safe.
  • Want to buy something frivolous, in the exact same way the majority of people do on a daily basis? No, that’s a “waste” of money.
  • Want to save money or get a part-time job? You lose your services.

I could write a list a mile long about these forms of control and how they hold people with disabilities back in life.

To be clear, there can no doubt be both good and bad conservatorships or similar arrangements. Of course, there will be some people who request this type of help, or who are happy and thriving within the agreement. That’s more than OK.  The key though is choice, and recognition that these arrangements can deny people their rights as well as be abusive.

It’s also good to know that there are other options! Supported decision-making is one such option that helps folks to maintain their autonomy while also getting person-centered guidance.  This isn’t about taking away sought-after assistance, it’s about respecting human rights.

We can be happy for Britney, and it’s OK to recognize that others in similar circumstances do not have people fighting for them. And they should, catchy hashtag or not.

Here are some resources to learn more:

FAQ About Conservatorships and Guardianships

Story about an abusive conservatorship


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Image via Instagram.

Originally published: November 22, 2021
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