#FreeBritney and free all disabled people who are trapped or voiceless

Disabled people are frequently given little say in how they are cared for or in the way policy affects them, something that the pandemic has brutally highlighted

James Moore
Saturday 17 July 2021 14:55
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Britney Spears celebrates as court allows her to pick her own lawyer

Public pressure is now aligned with bipartisan political pressure in the US, so it appears that there’s a good chance Britney Spears will soon be freed and #FreeBritney will celebrate a win. Good.

It’s almost surreal that a woman who can do TV shows and put on energy-sapping live gigs as part of a Las Vegas residency is in a situation where courts have decided that virtually every aspect of her life must be micromanaged by others, notably her father.

Even though it might pretend that justice is blind, the US legal system isn’t entirely immune to public pressure, especially when the public have identified that it is responsible for a rather glaring injustice. So there are grounds to be optimistic.

It is to be hoped, however, that the global conversation around conservatorships, and the treatment of those with mental health conditions and disabilities made subject to them that has trailed in the wake of the scandal, doesn’t die with Spears’s conservatorship.

In effectively being made voiceless, at least until her recent explosive court testimony, Spears found herself in the terrible position of many people with disabilities: trapped in a form of coercive control with no obvious way out.

This is a global problem that extends beyond the troubling US system of conservatorship, which the American Civil Liberties Union says strips disabled people of their civil liberties, or the similar mechanisms operating elsewhere (you may recall that the late Stieg Larsson jabbed at Sweden’s arrangements in his Millenium series which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Last week I highlighted the disgraceful imprisonment of autistic and learning disabled people in Britain. Earlier this week, Jeremy Hunt, the chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, described it as a “national shame” and said that “far too many” people are still being detained. The report of his committee highlighted “intolerable treatment” at inpatient facilities, including abusive restrictive practices.

This, together with abusive guardianships and conservatorships, whatever they’re called where they appear, are at the extreme end of a wider problem: the stripping away of disabled people’s voices. It is a societal issue that starts with the old “does he/she have sugar with that” and extends out from there.

Disabled people are frequently given little say in how they are cared for or in the way policy affects them, something that the pandemic has brutally highlighted.

“Disabled people have borne the brunt of the pandemic. This week the guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people – released ahead of ‘freedom day’ – will make many people feel they are on their own, having to rely on others taking responsibility, and without the support to keep themselves safe,” said Disability charity Scope.

“As a society we often make choices or assumptions without considering the impact on disabled people, and far too often we don’t include disabled people in the first place.”

Oh how true that is. I’ve frequently found myself as the lone disabled person debating these issues with policymakers, officials and former officials.

Inevitably I find myself being talked at while they fire misleading statistics, cynically spin reports and studies, and (especially) portray disabled people as nothing more than a cost. I’m quite capable of taking them on, and deploying reports, studies and statistics of my own, such as the UN’s that lambasted Britain for trampling over our rights. But I have a voice. I have this column. This makes me vanishingly rare.

Disabled people are almost invisible when it comes to culture, the media, the courts, the House of Commons. Look back at the parade of ministers for disabled people – including the incumbent. They don’t typically have disabilities themselves.

How can you make policy for something of which you have no experience of? Oh, right. I get it. That sort of thing happens all the time in government, and in the low-level one we have at the moment in particular. It’s no wonder that the health service has problems when former investment bankers and/or political hacks are put in charge of it. Teachers are, meanwhile, left tearing their hair out as grade D ministers dictate to them. I see you Gavin Williamson. You must try harder.

It’s never good when this happens but it is particularly damaging when it affects disabled people because the able-bodied have such a poor understanding of the issues that affect us. They just don’t get it.

Having largely lived as an able-bodied person before being left with impairments through a road traffic accident, I was suddenly, shockingly, confronted with the reality of just how difficult it is.

Some of the challenges come from quite unexpected directions. How do you watch a football match when the view from the away end is constantly obscured by the people in front standing up (as they do). What on earth do you do when a crutch ends up on the Tube tracks? How do you navigate London’s unfriendly public transport system on the way back from a painful hospital treatment? Stanmore station is step free. Finding the accessible entrance isn’t so easy. I could go on like this all day.

Britney Spears’s battle in many ways mirrors the disability rights battle that has been waging for years. The latter has involved its leaders constantly battering their heads against concrete in a bid to highlight the constant dragging across it of disabled people.

#FreeBritney. Do it now. But then let’s have a new slogan. #FreeDisabledPeople. And do that now too, wherever we may be imprisoned or otherwise left voiceless.

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