Diagnosis only goes so far

The way medical diagnosis works can often make disabled people feel fake. (Any kind of disabled people, including people with mental illness or chronic illness). There’s a widespread culture misperception that real disabled people have a clear professional diagnosis, and that everyone else is just faking it for attention or something. It doesn’t actually work that way. Diagnosis is more complicated than that.

People with disabilities are disabled whether or not anyone has diagnosed their disability. Diagnosis is an attempt to recognize the underlying reality (and often an attempt to get someone access to medical treatment or services.) But it doesn’t change the reality. Someone diagnosed today was already disabled yesterday. Many people are disabled for years or decades before they get access to accurate diagnosis. Being undiagnosed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not disabled. It just means you haven’t been diagnosed with anything.

In addition, some conditions aren’t currently diagnosable, because they have not yet been identified and named by doctors. If a condition was discovered for the first time today, someone had probably already had it yesterday. And last year. And back and back and back. Being undiagnosed and currently-undiagnosable doesn’t mean that you’re fake. It just means that you don’t have an answer.

Even when there is a diagnosis, there is not always an explanation. Some diagnostic categories are vague and unsatisfying. Some diagnoses amount to a list of symptoms you already knew you had. These kinds of diagnoses allow your doctor to bill your insurance and may get you access to treatment, but they don’t always give you answers. Being diagnosed with something vague doesn’t mean you’re fake either. It just means that you don’t have an answer.
In addition, diagnostic categories are often approximations that don’t quite describe reality for everyone. It’s fairly common to meet diagnostic criteria imperfectly. Or to have an atypical form of a condition. This doesn’t mean you’re fake either. It just means that reality is more complicated than textbooks. (Being similar to the textbook also doesn’t mean that you are fake; it just means that sometimes the textbooks are right about some people.)

Even when diagnosis gives you a lot of answers, it often won’t give you all the answers you would like to have. Mostly disabilities are fairly poorly understood. For most people, disability involves significant amounts of uncertainty, and many unanswered questions.

I don’t want to overstate this. Sometimes diagnosis does get you real answers. Even when it doesn’t, it can be very important. Often, even without answers, diagnosis can make your life a lot better by getting you access to treatment, support, or accommodations. Diagnosis can also mean that someone gets treatment or support that keeps them alive. Diagnosis is often very important for any number of reasons. It’s just not the ultimate decider of who is and isn’t really disabled. Disabled people who aren’t diagnosed with something that fully explains their symptoms are real disabled people, and their needs matter just as much as anyone else’s do.

Short version: Disabled people are disabled whether or not they are diagnosed. Diagnosis recognizes reality; it doesn’t create it. There are a lot of reasons why some disabled people aren’t diagnosed, or aren’t fully diagnosed. Scroll up for more explanation of why that is.