By Kyrios LoNigro
If you’ve been anywhere on social media, you’ve probably seen #FreeBritney. Britney Spears has been under a conservatorship for 13 years, unable to make decisions about her work schedule, reproductive health, or social life. In addition to a loss of autonomy, many with disabilities experience barriers to voting, lack of access to healthcare, and the inability to marry.
Conservatorships and guardianships have been under criticism for years for their power to facilitate abuse. In addition to being emotionally, physically, and financially damaging, conservatorships and guardianships also threaten the ability to vote. Only people with felony convictions and those deemed mentally incapacited by a court are not granted the right to vote by our constitution. While the criminal justice reform movement has been pushing for the former to be enfranchised, the same push has not been as prevalent for our disabled population. Tens of thousands lose their ability to vote every year and some states still pay their disabled employees subminimum wage. Out of 50 states, Texas ranks 41st in disability accessibility.
While organizations like AARP have experienced some success pushing for guardianship reform, assaults on the rights of those with disabilities continue in voter suppression bills. One in four of all adults in the U.S. live with a disability. Attempts by conservatives to require documentation for accommodation and to put signatures under further scrutiny are ableist and democratically destructive. In a state with some of the worst healthcare access in a nation without universal healthcare, Texas legislators should not be forcing voters to prove their disability in order to receive accommodation. If they do, the cost of being disabled could be even higher for disabled Texans.
The CDC says that 36 percent of the $3.6 trillion annual healthcare expenses in our country come from those with chronic and mental health conditions. In Texas, a disabled person can expect to pay around $10,227 annually. The state of reproductive health is especially poor for disabled persons, who are often desexualized and face greater rates of assault. Across the healthcare field disabled persons receive inadequate or nonexistent care due to healthcare disparities both in access and understanding. These disparities are worse for women, people of color, and LGBT+ individuals, who face both implicit and explicit bias.
For those receiving benefits from the state as a result of a disability, keeping their healthcare is vital. Without it, they may not stay alive. However, people with disabilities wishing to marry often cannot do so without losing their benefits. When someone receiving benefits marries, their partner’s income and assets are considered to determine their eligibility. If their combined income is more than $1,175 a month, neither will qualify. If someone decides to divorce or remain unmarried, they can still only earn up to $783 a month. These restrictions force individuals and couples to remain in poverty in order to reach a doctor. In 2018, it was estimated that 25.7 percent of disabled individuals lived in poverty. While the particulars of Britney Spears’ inability to marry are not due to needs based programs, her experiences are just the tip of a long, seldom talked about iceberg that crashes into the disability community every day.
As the case of Britney Spears remains a public interest, we have the ability to advocate for those with disabilities in a way that is culturally relevant. It is time for disabled community members to be fully protected under the law and to have access to the same opportunities as everyone else. We have a myriad of gifts, experiences, and skills to provide to the community. We are artists, athletes, educators, former service members, and celebrities. We use mobility aids, chemotherapy, heating pads, colostomy bags, and psychotropic drugs. We deserve the right to vote, to be taken care of, and to marry someone we love. Contact your legislators about the SSI Restoration Act and expanding Medicare, and next time you tweet out #FreeBritney, make sure you tweet #cripthevote and #disabilityjustice too.