There are numerous challenges that people with disabilities face, and some of the struggles are unique to disabilities people because they are invisible. Whereas visible disabilities, such as ones that require the use of adaptive mobility equipment, present their own set of struggles and often lead to exclusion, invisible disabilities are more complicated. Someone may be excluded from social and professional life for reasons that are not immediately apparent but nonetheless are just as oppressive and destructive as any other form of marginalization.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the U.S. 61 million adults live with a disability, and many of them have disabilities that are solely invisible. These conditions include, but are not limited to hearing or vision impairment, epilepsy, autism spectrum, chronic illness or mental health ailment, among other conditions.
There are lots of conditions that the public at large stigmatize. Such marginalization is extremely pervasive. According to research by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute, the majority of disability job discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) between 2005 and 2010 were associated with invisible disabilities.
This is a giant problem. As many of the issues set forth to be resolved by the Americans with Disabilities Act more than 30 years ago still have a way to go before anything resembling equality can be declared, invisible disabilities have somewhat fallen by the wayside.
However, the issue may come to a head from an unlikely source: news of the fight for pop singer Britney Spears’ social and financial independence, which has rallied the outcry, #FreeBritney.
Spears is currently under a conservatorship headed by her father, Jamie, which gives him control over her finances as well as many other everyday life decisions. Teen Vogue’s Haley Moss explains the concept more generally here:
Under conservatorship, disabled adults face restrictions on a wide variety of rights: Where they live, when and where they work, money management, and healthcare decisions. Conservatorships are often thought of as something that only happens to elderly people who can no longer care for themselves, people with terminal illnesses, or for people like me, who are diagnosed with autism or other intellectual and “Under conservatorship, disabled adults face restrictions on a wide variety of rights: Where they live, when and where they work, money management, and healthcare decisions. Conservatorships are often thought of as something that only happens to elderly people who can no longer care for themselves, people with terminal illnesses, or for people like me, who are diagnosed with autism or other intellectual and developmental disabilities."
In her observation, Moss signals the significance of this case for her personally.
Spears was first placed under conservatorship in 2008, when she had a highly publicized mental health breakdown which was signified in popular culture by her shaved head and for which she unfortunately received a barrage of derision and mockery.
We heard Spears’ testimony on June 23rd, that she was put on medications she didn't want to be on, was unable to marry her boyfriend, and wasn't allowed to remove her IUD when she wanted to get pregnant.
“All of this is horrifying,” Moss says, “but it also illustrates the lack of self-determination and agency disabled adults face under conservatorships, typically without the public batting an eye.”
She is absolutely correct that we as a society need to care about the general concept of oppression of disabled folks beyond the spectacle of celebrity. Poignantly, she observes,
There is no doubt Britney Spears did the right thing in receiving or seeking mental health treatment over a decade ago. But losing her civil rights didn’t have to happen, nor should it continue to happen to people with disabilities. Instead, conservatorships and guardianships should be seen as an absolute last resort given how difficult they are to get out of — if Britney has been fighting to end her conservatorship for 13 years, imagine how difficult it is for disabled people who encounter numerous barriers to access to courts, lawyers, and education about their own rights, all who deserve respect and have opinions that should be heard and honored.”
Given how much #FreeBritney has highlighted, we can all see that there is so much more to be done.