Pop Star Britney Spears Inspires New WP Course—#FreeBritney—That Puts Spotlight on Disability Rights

A crowd of Britney Spears supporters holds up signs for the media in front of the Lincoln Memorial this past summer. A cardboard Britney is in the foreground. Credit: Flickr/Mike Maguire

Students at William Paterson University are studying how grassroots activism, social media, and the press have brought disability rights to the forefront of the nation’s understanding of basic human rights in a new course focused on the recent conservatorship case of pop star Britney Spears.

The online course, titled #FreeBritney, uses Britney Spears’ public battle to dissolve her father’s conservatorship as a case study to explore disability rights. The course provides an in-depth look at the subject of guardianship/ conservatorship through the lens of what has been a prominent legal case extensively covered by the media and impacted by information and advocacy shared through social media.

“I’m really excited about this class,” says Pamela Brillante, professor and director of the University’s disability studies program. “Guardianship/conservatorship is a disability rights issue. It’s all about who has autonomy and who gets to make their own decisions, because as adults, we’re allowed to make poor decisions.”

Brillante spent a week discussing the #FreeBritney movement last year in the University’s introductory disability studies course, “Rethinking (dis)Ability,” which gave her the idea to develop the new elective course.

“The topic spurred wonderful discussions with students,” says Brillante. “We talked about situations where conservatorship is appropriate, where there could be ethical issues and abuse, and why young children have guardians automatically.” Brillante shared her own story of being a legal guardian to a father who had dementia.

This semester, students are getting into deeper discussions and research as they compare high-profile cases like that of child star Amanda Bynes’ medical conservatorship, singer Ke$ha’s legal issues, Kanye West’s public struggles, and the intersectionality of disability and gender.

The course, which is co-taught by Brillante and Paula Danziger, professor of professional counseling, also examines how the #FreeBritney movement is instigating changes in disability rights laws, especially in California.

Among their assignments, students are asked to use social media to promote awareness of what they are learning in class. Some students have started sharing information on the “Spread the Word” global events website, an international campaign to spread the word about inclusive practices, and pledging to be more inclusive themselves. Students are also going to be sharing details about the University’s disability studies program overall to create more awareness about this relatively new concentration in higher education, says Brillante.

Students hope their social media posts enact positive change, and say they would be thrilled if Spears herself took notice and visited their online class.

William Paterson’s bachelor’s degree in disability studies—the first in New Jersey and one of the first few in the country—is designed to meet the growing demand across all industries for professionals who understand the needs of those with disabilities. The program proactively explores the nature and meaning of disability as a social construct instead of a medical deficit, and examines laws, policies, culture and history as a way to de-stigmatize disease, illness, and impairment across all areas of society.