Hey Britney, I Want to Help You Be an Ally to the Disability Community

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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Hey Britney, I Want to Help You Be an Ally to the Disability Community

Vilissa Thompson

Britney Spears can use her powerful voice to continue broadening the discussions around conservatorships and the rights of disabled people.

“Hopefully my little story—my story—will make an impact and make some changes in the corrupt system.”

Those were Britney Spears’ words when she spoke out about winning her battle against the conservatorship that had a stronghold on every aspect of her life for 13 years. She shared how she wants to be an advocate, which made me think about what kind of activist Britney could be.

I came of age in the late ’90s and early 2000s, meaning that, like so many people of my generation, I was a die-hard pop fan. And Britney was one of my favorite childhood stars. Her positive impact on both music and culture cannot be denied. Britney was the “It” girl in the late ’90s and early 2000s; you cannot talk about this era in pop music without uttering her name. The same culture that revered her was the same culture that spent nearly a decade tearing her down.

I remember vividly the “controversy” about her midriffs and the alleged negative influence she had on young girls—this was my first glimpse into the public policing and gossip Britney would endure in her life.

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The harmful discussions about Britney over the years continued well beyond her outfits, treading into sanism and ableism territory when it came to her mental health. It was difficult for me to watch the media tear her apart, not only as a fan but also as a disabled person—and it is difficult for me to watch her struggle now. Being misunderstood and ridiculed by those around you, both privately and publicly, is something no one should experience, but it is something with which disabled people are all too familiar. The jokes and scandals that surrounded Britney regarding her mental health and well-being highlighted the lack of compassion people with mental illness endure.

Like many of us, I was shocked, but not surprised, at the invasiveness of her conservatorship. To have every detail of your life controlled—right down to your fertility and family planning—is gut-wrenching. To be forced into silence by those who supposedly have your best interests in mind, and then to realize that isn’t the case, is the ultimate betrayal. It was emotional to watch that first video Britney posted to Instagram in November of last year after she was freed from the confines that kept her captive for over a decade.

Britney recently shared that she was extended an invitation to speak to Congress about her conservatorship. This could be a powerful moment for her. It could push forward the conversation about the ordeals that disabled people endure under conservatorships, many of which society is unaware of. If she accepts the invitation, she could bring much-needed attention to conservatorships and, potentially, spur a turning point for possible legislative action to protect the rights of those living under these provisions.

Over the past several months, I have been thinking about working with Britney to bring her into the disability activism and advocacy fold. Her powerful voice has broadened the discussions surrounding conservatorships and the rights of disabled people, and I believe I have the experience and temperament to help her grow as an advocate for disabled people.

I would love to talk to Britney about the racial disparities that disabled people of color—especially disabled women and femmes of color—face when it comes to reproductive access, health-care access, and more.

Since I began this work in 2013, corporations and institutions large and small have hired me to provide customized consultations and training sessions that target barriers to inclusion and access in their respective fields. I believe I can help strengthen Britney’s knowledge on disability issues and intentionally avoid the harmful ways many celebrities talk to and engage with the community. Far too many celebrities use outdated or offensive language, share inspiration porn about disabled people, or seek to distance themselves from the disability community. When I heard Britney’s passion and determination, I could see a future where she uses her voice to ensure that others in the same predicament feel validated and know that they matter.

If I had the opportunity to work with Britney, both as a social worker and as an activist mentor, I would make sure she knows she’s not alone, I would make sure she feels safe, and I would encourage her to think about intersectionality.

Being part of the disability community means being part of an extremely diverse community —this is what makes these communities so beautiful. But as much beauty as there is, the disability community has not traditionally valued diversity, neither in its history nor in the way people in the community interact with one another. Activists like me are changing that by demanding more diversity and working to make intersectionality the foundation of disability activism. And I believe it is critical to ensure that Britney’s disability activism takes this diversity into account; intersectionality must be the core of her activism, not an afterthought.

I would like to support Britney on this journey. Allowing Britney to release her feelings, the myriad emotions she held for so long, in a safe environment has to be a priority to any and everyone who desires to be in community with Britney. I understand that deeply. As a social worker, my number one rule when discussing topics during which people may disclose experiences that put them in a vulnerable place is to let them explore and learn without unjust criticism. Giving Britney the space to dig into her feelings is key to not only her healing but also her ability to connect with others and provide them with the support they need in their truth-sharing.

And ensuring that her disability activism is intentionally intersectional will allow Britney’s disabled fans to see themselves in her.

I am intimately aware of what can happen when white people with disabilities fail to have an intersectional scope in their disability framework, and helping Britney avoid these pitfalls is one of the main reasons why I would love to work with her. I would love to talk to her about the racial disparities that disabled people of color—especially disabled women and femmes of color—face when it comes to reproductive access, the carceral system, education, health-care access, and housing and employment discrimination, among other things, to help develop her view into the lives of disabled people who frequently go unnoticed in society.

Her knowledge about these matters would help her grow as an advocate and give her the tools to continue to conduct her activism work in a way that recognizes that others face challenges she does not. (Notably, she seems to already understand that she has privileges many people living under conservatorships do not—she said as much in her video.) She has intersectional leanings, even if she may not have a deep understanding of what intersectionality means.

Celebrities who are disabled and knowledgeable in disability activism have the resources to reach the very people they want to support, and that is the kind of legacy in activism I would love for Britney. Disabled celebrities who are not only knowledgeable but who also align their views and language with the disability community’s progressive stances will resonate more deeply with disabled people than celebrities who lack this ability. (An example of someone who leaned into their identity and thus received tremendous support from the community is actor Selma Blair, who in 2018 disclosed that she has multiple sclerosis. Selma has been interviewed by and brought in members of the community for the work she’s doing surrounding her documentary. Such intentional interaction matters more than most disabled celebrities realize. I would love for Britney to have something similar in a long-lasting way.)

Like many members of the community, I would welcome Britney with open arms when she’s ready to be embraced. I wish her the best on her journey and would welcome the opportunity to work with her so that she can have the most positive impact on the disabled community, particularly her disabled fans.

Britney, I’m ready to work with you when you are.