The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
What Is Disability Justice?
Disability justice is a sociopolitical movement centred around intersectionality and examines the ways in which ableism, and other diverse systems of oppression, reinforce and amplify each other. Patty Berne, Mia Mingus and other members of the Disability Justice Collective coined the term in 2005 in opposition to the Disability Rights Framework, which tends to view disability as a single-issue identity focusing on white experiences and mobility issues.
Disability justice accounts for people at the junctures of oppression; people with disabilities who are also people of colour, immigrants, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, incarcerated, without homes, etc. It recognizes all disabilities; be that intellectual, mental, physical, or neurological, and cherishes bodily uniqueness, complexity, and wholeness as a summation of identities, culture, and experience.
Disability justice can help us understand how and why people with disabilities are more likely to experience systems of oppression, such as conservatorships, wherein a person is legally incapacitated and appointed a guardian for their financial, personal and/or legal affairs. The ‘Free Britney’ movement, started by adoring Britney fans, aims to free Britney from her conservatorship and brings sensationalized, although much needed awareness to the problems inherent in all conservatorships. Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance project, presents 10 tenets to further movement building, some of which can be used to understand how Britney’s conservatorship was constructed by the demands of the systems surrounding her.
Sins Invalid Tenets: intersectionality, leadership of those most impacted, anti-capitalist politics, cross-movement solidarity, recognizing wholeness, sustainability, commitment to cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation
The BRITNEY CASE
In June of 2021, a furious and vulnerably transparent Britney Spears gave testimony detailing the trauma and invalidation she experiences under conservatorship. The conservatorship, which began in 2008 in the crux of a custody battle and a series of public mental health episodes, declared Spears as legally disabled, making her case one of disability rights.
Spears is a result of her intersectional identities, where mental distress is reinforced by sexuality, gender, and celebrity. Although I like to think we’re now in a renaissance of reinterpreting wrongly maligned women, Britney’s fame coincided with mass tabloid media where watching women fall apart was a national sport — take Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, Lindsay Lohan, and Janet Jackson for example. The pop lexicon, illiterate in mental health politics, used Britney’s gender and sexuality to exploit what they saw as maternal failure and reinforce images of mental distress as ‘crazy.’ Under conservatorship, Spears was forced to keep her IUD, unable to marry her boyfriend, and was prevented from seeing her children. In cross-movement solidarity, disability justice is aligned with reproductive justice which includes one’s rights to have and parent children. With Spears, ableism reinforces forced contraception. Despite being ‘incapacitated’ Britney remains working and has a net-worth of over 60 million dollars. Yet, she lacks financial control and is forced to pay her conservators. In fact, co-conservator Andrew Wallet once referred to the conservatorship as a ‘hybrid business model.’ In her testimony, Britney expressed needing a break but as a conservatee being legally unable to choose where and when she works. Britney’s suffering to the profit of her conservators is in opposition to anti-capitalist politics where personhood is valued over productivity.
To free Britney, disability justice work is needed to demolish the ways in which ableism, sexism, and capitalism reinforce each other.
Free britney …. and all other disabled people
Spears, as a white wealthy cis-woman, is somewhat contrary to the disability justice movement created for people of colour, queer, trans, and non-conforming people with disabilities, and it is unclear whether Britney self identifies as disabled. Still, she is one of the estimated 1.5 million adults in the United States under conservatorship, many of whom are elderly and/or disabled. Like Spears, people with disabilities under conservatorship do not have control over their finances, medical treatment, reproductive health, or time. Though Britney’s IUD comment shocked many, forced sterilization has historically been used to control disabled people and Buck v. Bell (1927) that set precedent was never overturned.
Conservatorships are extremely difficult to terminate as folks are often devalued, and don’t have ‘capacity’ to retain an attorney. Even when everybody involved has the best intentions, stripping a person of legal agency is inherently problematic. In 2003, Ryan King, a Black man with an intellectual disability was placed under conservatorship of his parents at the instruction of social workers. Even though King turned out to be a functional independent adult and he and his parents petitioned to end the conservatorship, the court disagreed.
Protection for those who need it is important, but as disability justice would argue, legal solutions may not be the answer since current political and societal systems do not see people with disabilities as worthy of the rights of personhood. Making mistakes is part of being human, as is the dignity of risk, and yet we rob people with disabilities of this.
Britney’s case brings awareness to the lack of agency people with disabilities face living in a society that was built to oppress them. To free Britney is to use disability justice to dismantle these systems of oppression.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are my own. I use the term ‘disabled’ to refer to anyone who identifies as experiencing disability. Disabled is not a bad word. Disabled people are people. This article discusses folks with disabilities as a sum of their intersectional identities, which is important in embracing the whole-self and understanding how systems of oppression are interconnected. To separate people from their identities would be oppressive and hurtful.