Content note: This post is about the broad (inaccurate) perception that people with disabilities are faking, and ways that forces some people with disabilities to partially misrepresent the exact nature of their disability. Proceed with caution.
Some people without disabilities believe that there are massive numbers of people faking disability, and that they must be caught and stopped. People who believe this usually don’t know very much about what disability actually looks like. They tend to assume that anyone with a disability who has non-stereotypical abilities is faking their disability.
Real disability often doesn’t look like stereotypical disability. For instance, many wheelchair users can walk, and many people who have service dogs can read, and many people have different abilities on different days depending on their energy and pain levels. This doesn’t mean that they are faking. It just means that their combination of abilities and disabilities don’t look like media tropes, because they are real people.
People with non-stereotypical disabilities can be in a very difficult place when dealing with people who think this way. It’s a pervasive problem, and people with a misplaced dedication to rooting out fakers often have a lot of destructive power over people who need disability-related support.
Being thought of as faking can mean that you lose accommodations. It can mean that you lose services that you need in order to survive. It can mean you get harassed. It can mean people are violent.
Sometimes, people with disabilities have no realistic option other than to allow people to believe that they fit these stereotypes:
- On a college campus, every dorm except one is completely inaccessible.
- The main entrance to the partially accessible dorm has stairs
- There is an accessible entrance for employees and residents with disabilities, but it’s always locked
- In order to get a key, you have to convince Fred the building manager that you need one
- Fred is very suspicious of disability claims, and is constantly trying to catch people faking disability
- Fred believes that anyone using a wheelchair who can walk, stand, or even move their legs, is a faker who needs to be called out and prevented from using accessibility resources (if you don’t know why he’s wrong, read this post)
- Wheelchair users who need access to that building are careful to give Fred the impression that they are completely unable to walk or stand. They never stand in front of him, or in a place where he might turn up unexpected. They carefully avoid referencing their ability to stand to anyone who might repeat it to Fred.
- They may even have to outright lie about this in order to prevent Fred from taking away their access to the only door they can use. (eg: If Fred asks them directly, or rants about fakers, or makes them fill out an intrusive form).
- Many, many people have strong attachments to stereotypical ideas about how disability works
- They tend to think that people who don’t fit those stereotypes are faking disability
- Most people with disabilities don’t fit disability stereotypes particularly well
- It’s often dangerous for people with disabilities to be perceived as faking it
- That’s a hard situation, because:
- There may be times when you know that if you describe your abilities and access needs completely accurately, people are likely to think that you are faking
- But if you somewhat misrepresent your abilities in a way that fits the stereotype, then they’ll believe you about your real access needs
- Which can put you into the awkward position of having to choose between representing the nature of your disability fully accurately and being thought of as faking, or allowing people to inaccurately believe that you fit a stereotype and being believed
- That’s degrading on a level it’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it
- It’s also a common experience among people with disabilities, and if that’s what you’re dealing with, it’s not your fault.
Some additional examples:
- Some people who can write a little bit by hand are careful not to write in front of most people, so they they will not be assumed to be capable of the kind of writing that is completely impossible for them
- Some people who are not autistic but have similar support needs due to less well-known conditions end up with an inaccurate autism diagnosis in order to gain access to services that they absolutely need in order to access education or to survive
- Some people with both physical and cognitive disabilities allow others to assume that they are more physically disabled than they really are as a way of getting their cognitive access needs met without having to face certain kinds of cognitive ableism
- Some people who can speak only a few words are careful to avoid speaking in front of most people, lest someone decide to take away the communication system they need to communicate things that can’t be expressed in their few spoken words
If you have a disability and you are not free to describe it fully accurately lest you lose accommodations, lose services, or face frightening harassment, know that you are not alone. A lot of people with disabilities experience this at some point or other. It’s humiliating and corrosive to go through, and it may make you feel like you are faking or that your needs are imaginary. It helps to remember that this is not actually your fault.
You are not faking, and your needs matter. You are a real person with a real disability doing the best you can in a hostile world. You are not alone, and it helps to remember that. There are other people with disabilities who are there, or who have been there, who understand that struggle.
Short version: People with disabilities are often forced to pretend to meet stereotypes in order to get their very real needs met. This is humiliating and degrading. If you’re dealing with that, it’s not your fault and you’re not alone.