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Why the Britney Spears Conservatorship Is a Disability Rights Issue

On Wednesday, June 23, pop star Britney Spears testified in court about the “abusive” nature of her conservatorship, a California-state arrangement that has given her father Jamie Spears control over most aspects of her life and her 60 million dollar fortune. The state had executed the nearly 13-year conservatorship because Spears’s father argued that Britney’s addiction and mental health issues prevented her from managing most aspects of her life.

In Wednesday’s leaked audio opening testimony about rescinding the arrangement, the pop star testified that she was made to feel like a “slave,” have people she was supervising dictate her work arrangements and that she was forced to wear an IUD, contravening her wish to have another child. “I just want my life back!” Britney pleaded, detailing how she was forced to take lithium, have twice-a-week psychotherapy arrangements outside of which she was accosted by paparazzi and to enter rehab, all against her will.

While the singer-songwriter’s case has garnered attention because of her public stature, conservatorship, known as guardianship in most states, is a disability rights issue. As outlined by advocacy journalist Sara Luterman in The Nation, the AARP’s “best guess” in 2013 was that 1.5 million Americans, most of whom were young adults with intellectual disabilities or older adults with dementia, were under guardianship arrangements. As disability rights advocates have outlined, once under the authority of a conservator or guardian, there is little accountability or oversight.

Luterman cites attorney Sam Crane of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who explains that, “In theory, family courts are supposed to oversee guardians’ performance and make sure they don’t take advantage of people or abuse their power. But in practice, for most people under guardianship, there is little oversight.”

According to The Arc of California, the reality, however, is that the rights of disabled people are often not preserved during conservatorship proceedings, and the individuals doing capacity assessments are not properly trained. Furthermore, the courts in California, where Britney resides, are supposed to come out once a year to make sure that these arrangements are functioning, but they often don’t. Most states also require less-restrictive options to be tried first, but this is rarely enforced.

It was also a bone of contention in Britney’s hearing that she cannot even choose her own attorney to argue to leave the arrangement. The court had to appoint someone to represent her.

As Luterman outlines, there are less prohibitive ways of helping disabled people handle their finances. One of them is power of attorney, where someone else makes a person’s medical decisions and controls their finances, but where that individual can be changed at any time. In Britney’s case, such an arrangement would have prevented most of the abuse she alleges that her father Jamie Spears has perpetrated.

A newer concept is that of supported-decision making, which President Biden championed in his disability rights proposal as Democratic nominee. Supported-decision making would allow disabled people to conduct their affairs with a team of adults that would help. While Biden has not weighed in on the Spears case, he said that as President, he would direct the U.S. Department of Justice to review guardianship laws, “with an eye toward ensuring that citizens with disabilities are able to exercise self-determination consistent with the ADA.”

What happens in Britney’s case could well set off the next frontier of the disability rights movement.

Image via Instagram/Britney Spears.

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