Britney Spears took a huge step toward reclaiming her life Wednesday when a judge suspended her father as her conservator. But the pop star had already won a major victory for herself and the many, many other disabled people who have so often been denied their days in court and, with them, agency in their lives by challenging the restraints that had been placed on her. Though Spears rose to fame on her singing, it is the voice she’s used in trying to end her father’s control over her that does the most to free not only her, but also all those who have been in her position.
As a young, disabled attorney, I know how speaking and being seen as competent in a court of law can be a very rare privilege.
As a young, disabled attorney, I know how speaking and being seen as competent in a court of law can be a very rare privilege, as disabled people are so often denied independence and the opportunity to have our voices heard in court. Even someone as wealthy and famous as Spears lost that power seemingly overnight when, following public mental health struggles, she was placed under a conservatorship in 2008, with her father, Jamie, in charge.
Under conservatorships and guardianships, people can lose a wide variety of their civil rights, including being able to choose where to live, whom to marry, when and whether to work and what type (if any) medical care to get. AARP estimates that 1.5 million adults are under guardianships or conservatorships in the U.S., though the number could be as high as 3 million.
The majority of these adults are over 65 and have cognitive and mobility disabilities that are perceived as making them unable to care for themselves. Many of the rest have intellectual and developmental disabilities and are deemed unable to make their own decisions. There are also some who have mental health and psychiatric disabilities, as in Spears’ case.
Once the court grants a petition, often brought by family members, to deem a disabled person incompetent and put a conservator in place, it can be incredibly difficult to get released even if that person wants to end the arrangement. Disabled people’s desires are often ignored because courts have declared them incompetent to make their own decisions and almost always assume the guardians know the disabled people’s needs better.
When guardianship petitions are disputed, it can be an uphill battle for the ward to be taken seriously by a judge. Spears broke that cycle when she tearfully shared in court the abuse she’s suffered — the forced placement of an IUD to prevent pregnancy, roadblocks in seeing and marrying her now-fiancé and not having a say in when she works — and the judge removed her father as conservator.
The attention that she’s brought to the issue and the questions people are starting to ask about conservatorships are crucial, because cases with the attention and level of public knowledge like Spears’ are unusual. (Some attorneys and the guardians they represent, like those in my home state, Florida, want the records to be kept even more private, which would limit oversight and accountability.) Wards, meanwhile, share harrowing tales of desperately trying to get access to legal services or being cut off from their loved ones to prevent challenging conservators’ control.
But while it’s encouraging to see the media and members of the public begin to discuss the conservatorship system, even more important is self-advocacy: the ability for disabled people to communicate their own wants, needs and desires.
Ever since Spears’ testimony back in June was made public, we’ve seen a stunning display of just that: her speaking against the abuse she’s suffered under the conservatorship, her winning the right to choose her own lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, and otherwise fighting at every turn to oppose her conversatorship. In essence, Spears is doing what is usually unheard of under the conservatorship system in petitioning the court, testifying and advocating for her right to self-determination while the whole world is watching.
Spears’ speaking up is a particularly powerful example for me, because I myself didn’t speak at all in my first few years of life because of autism, a fairly common neurodevelopmental disability. I was late-speaking, not forming sentences and ideas of my own until around kindergarten or the first grade.
As I got older, with the help of my parents, talented educators and speech and occupational therapists I eventually began to share my own thoughts and ideas out loud. But I never dreamed I would end up going to law school or becoming a lawyer, because I thought they were supposed to be loud and in your face.
I was determined to make a difference for people with disabilities, though, and decided to pursue a law degree once I realized there was no one correct way to be a lawyer. When I was sworn in to the Florida Bar, the judge administering my oath of attorney emphasized how, unlike many other lawyers, I wouldn’t take the faculty of speech for granted.
I quickly became known as Florida’s first openly autistic attorney. The moniker shouldn’t be necessary, because autistic and disabled people should have the opportunities to be their authentic selves rather than face barriers to access, but the fact remains that too few neurodivergent people find ways to participate openly in advocacy. Which is another reason Spears’ using her voice in court is so important.
What she’s achieved so far in her conservatorship case makes me believe that the best way forward for her is supported decision-making, because she still might need a team of financial advisers, her fiancé, managers and others to assist her. This process puts disabled people in the driver’s seat, allowing them to make decisions with help and guidance from people they trust and have chosen to be there under supported decision-making agreements.
Though guardianship laws and available alternatives vary from state to state, supported decision-making usually allows supporters to speak and act on their behalf in specific situations that subjects of the agreements consent to. For instance, someone with a disability may appoint a family member as the point of contact to speak with a landlord, or the agreement may provide for a friend to speak at medical appointments.
Wednesday’s ruling was a monumental win for disabled people everywhere who are fighting for their rights or to be released from conservatorships. It’s time for the world to let people with disabilities speak up — and then listen to what they say.