Friday, January 9, 2009

Britney Spears and Disability Rights

I don't follow celebrity news very much, but the Britney Spears saga got more interesting when her father was granted control of her financial and personal affairs after her well-publicized mental meltdown. The courts just made the conservatorship permanent. This is after he got a raise; he was getting $10,000 a month of her money and now they've increased that to $16,000 a month. The change is actually retroactive, to make things worse.

Why do I care about this? Because it is indicative of the fact that people with disabilities in our society can have their rights taken away from them all too easily, if they were ever lucky enough to have them in the first place. As is the case with a lot of people, too often we are willing to accept an inferior solution for problems that affect those who are looked down upon in society. Thus, we have the existence of what has aptly been termed the Disability Gulag that traps those who have the misfortune of being poor and disabled or those whose families don't want the "burden" of caring for them. Disability and poverty have the unfortunate tendency to coexist, especially if the disability impedes or totally precludes the ability to find and keep employment that pays a living wage and includes benefits. If one can only work part-time, good luck finding a job that gives part-timers benefits at a reasonable rate. I can only think of two companies that offer part-time employees benefits: UPS and FedEx. And if you have something like fibromyalgia or CFS, loading and unloading trailers and standing on your feet for upwards of 4 hours at a stretch may not be the best line of work. At this point, many people would think, well there's SSDI, right? Wrong. Tennessee may have the highest rate of SSDI denials, but the rest of the US isn't exactly progressive when it comes to assisting the disabled. When the payments do come, they're scant (in 2005, the average SSDI payment was $896 a month) and often don't start coming until several months after the initial application was made. Lawmakers get so obsessed with the few who somehow manage to scam the system that it makes life difficult for the majority who actually need it. There is something perverse about a system that ties access to health care to employment; it's a twisted version of John Smith's famous admonition to the Jamestown settlers, "He who will not work will not eat." I suppose a more modern wording would be "he who cannot will not work will not have medical care...but there's always the ER."

For people who wish to enter the workforce, there is something called the Ticket to Work program. Unfortunately it fails to serve the mentally ill when it comes to finding and keeping employment. In that sense, Britney is lucky in a twisted way. She has employment and her family is willing to take care of her, even if they are milking her for every dime and will continue to do so for the rest of her life. But that luck comes not with strings, but with chains attached. She has to do what Daddy Jamie says or he could put her back in the hospital and she'd have no recourse at all because she's considered a child (or arguably a non-person) under the law. It doesn't matter that by all accounts she has been stable and responsible and it won't ever matter unless he somehow decides to give up his conservatorship (and all the accompanying moola) or she can manage to get the order overturned (but if you can't even hire your own lawyer, good luck getting that done).

The idea of an independent person with a disability is anathema to the societal view of the perpetual child, literally and figuratively. In mass media, people with disabilities, visible and invisible are few and far between. They're usually trotted out for the PSA-style episodes and then magically disappear, never to be seen again. Gods forbid that there should ever be a show that has a disabled person as the main character or that a "mainstream" show should ever include a disabled person as a regular character. While things like television portrayals seem superficial, when seen as part of a greater scheme, it becomes quite clear that it is societal and even systemic abuse that drives the shafting of the disabled.

1 comment:

  1. WOW. That's disgusting, that the court permanently took away all her control over her own money. I do think laws that allow a person to be hospitalized against their will WHEN MEDICALLY NECESSARY are reasonable and necessary, and giving Britney's dad conservatorship temporarily might have helped keep her from spending away her whole fortune in bipolar-disorder-induced shopping binges, but it really shouldn't be possible to award a permanent conservatorship with no legal recourse for the mentally ill person at all. That's horrible that it happened to her.