News |

#FreeBritney: The Politics of Disability and Choice

#FreeBritney—the hashtag that everyone is using right now. Britney Spears, a singer equally famous for her singing as for her crises related to mental health, has been under conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears, for 13 years. In California, conservatorship is divided into two categories: conservatorship of the person, and conservatorship of the estate. In Minnesota, we call conservatorship of the person “guardianship.” Either way, the guardian is responsible for supporting the person in making decisions that are in their best interest. The media attention to this issue is important, but misses two critical points. 

Guardianship is common and limiting

The first important point that the #FreeBritney movement misses is the commonness of guardianship in the disability community. Britney is unique because she is famous and wealthy, not because her guardianship started when she was young. While there are no statistics solely for the state of Minnesota, nationally, 50% of all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities under the age of 35 are under guardianship.  

In the article “The Darker Story Just Outside the Lens of Framing Britney Spears,” author Sara Luterman points out that often students who have disabilities are part of a “school to guardianship pipeline.” This means that once they leave the perceived safety of school, they are funneled into the “safety” of guardianship as soon as they turn 18 years old.  

This pipeline means that people aren’t able to have the learning experiences, that help us make decisions in our life long term. This often makes people more “vulnerable” because they do not have experience making good or bad decisions in a supportive environment. This also limits their lived experience, as they do not have a clear understanding of the positive and negative consequences that can follow from their decisions.  

Why having the freedom to make decisions matters 

The second important point that #FreeBritney misses is that having the freedom to make decisions is important to our liberty. Many guardianship orders take away a person’s decision-making rights and autonomy. Guardianship can limit how people spend their money and resources, who they spend time with, whether they can get married, their medical care, reproductive rights, and more. 

The guardianship system, and the #FreeBritney movement, do not address the fact that we all have preferences, and we all rely on other people for support. We rarely make decisions without influence—we turn to friends and family for advice about important decisions before making them.  

It is often discussed as Britney only having two options—Britney being under guardianship OR not being under guardianship and making unfiltered, harmful decisions. She may need ongoing support to make decisions; we all do. The universal need for supported decision making means there are multiple alternatives that we all use on a daily basis, both formal and informal. All of these alternatives are less restrictive than guardianship. Britney, and other people who have disabilities, deserve access to all of these options.  

Alternatives to guardianship 

Some formal alternatives to guardianship include: decision-making agreements, health care directives, power of attorney, and releases of information. Some alternatives to conservatorship of the estate (money and property) include: joint checking accounts, ABLE accounts, and trusts.  

This issue is more than just a hashtag, and disproportionally affects young people who have disabilities every day. Nationally, efforts are building nationwide to change restrictive guardianship models, which The Arc U.S. is helping lead. Learn more about that effort here.  

There are alternatives to guardianship that can help many young adults who have disabilities live more freely, even if that hashtag doesn’t exist yet. 

For more information about these alternatives, please see our resource library of Arc Guides and videos, or call our help desk at 1-866-797-1122.  


Staff guest blog written by Victoria Hickenbotham