7 Reasons why it’s time to stop accusing people of faking their disability

Accessibility shouldn’t be questioned, much less met with hostility or violence - even if you have doubts or suspicions about the person. No matter how sure you of yourself you are, here are seven reasons why you’re never going to be able to definitively tell if someone is “faking” their disability. And more importantly, why you should never even try.

Nearly every day I read another story about a disabled person being harassed in a public space for “faking” their disability. As a full time wheelchair user, and someone who’s very visibly affected by my disease, I’m lucky. No one ever really accuses me of pretending to be disabled. But, there are a lot of people who don’t use wheelchairs full time, or at all, who appear to be healthy and/or abled. When they try to use accessible parking spaces or sign up for accommodations at school, sometimes they’re forced to deal intrusive questions and unfair accusations. Sometimes even aggression or assault.

Needing accessibility shouldn’t be questioned. Much less met with hostility or violence – even if you have doubts or suspicions about the person. No matter how sure you of yourself you are, here are seven reasons why you’re never going to be able to definitively tell if someone is “faking” their disability. And more importantly, why you should never even try to find out.

Accessibility shouldn’t be questioned, much less met with hostility or violence - even if you have doubts or suspicions about the person. No matter how sure you of yourself you are, here are seven reasons why you’re never going to be able to definitively tell if someone is “faking” their disability. And more importantly, why you should never even try.
[IMG: photo taken from an accessible parking space facing a yard and 3 brown buildings. A sign for the accessible space is seen to the left in front of the buildings and the sun is rising through the trees in the background.]

1. It’s literally none of your business

If someone is minding their business out in public and using a mobility aid or taking an accessible space, it’s truly none of your concern. You can have your own suspicions and I can’t tell you what to think, but the fact that you don’t trust some doesn’t give you the right to their medical history or any personal information. So much could be solved if people just let it go and moved on rather than starting a confrontation.

Also, we need to stop looking at accessibility as some kind of special favor to be jealous of or defensive about and instead as something that is a necessary piece of equality and safety for those who need it. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been met with resentment for getting “wheelchair perks” and that kind of attitude leads to the aggressive call out culture we’re in. “You don’t need that and if I can’t get that you shouldn’t either” is a sentiment that needs to go away.

2. Disability is not a uniform experience.

Even if/when you think you know what it looks like, you don’t. So many problems arise from ableist beliefs founded on wildly incorrect assumptions of what disability is. I can’t stress this point enough: disability is not a monolith. We’re not all the same, and you can’t use one disabled person as your default standard of what disability is.

My brother and I have the same exact diagnosis but have different abilities, need different wheelchairs, and helped with different things throughout the day. On paper, we should be the same but experiences are so different. And it’s like that for every disability. You could bring in 100 people with the same type of muscular dystrophy that I have and I guarantee that none of us would have an identical experience.

And that’s just one diagnosis in a sea of thousands. Most of which you’ve never even heard of. The disabled community is a massive and eclectic group of people. Yet the standard idea of disability is a paralyzed person in a wheelchair. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to explain or watch someone else explain that just because a person is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they can’t move or feel their legs. It doesn’t even mean they can’t walk! Similarly, not all deaf people are 100% deaf and not all blind people are 100% blind, etc etc.

3. Invisible disabilities exist – you can’t spot them

While we’re talking about shattering assumptions of disability, it’s so incredibly important to remember that there are countless disabilities that can be completely invisible. I can guarantee that you’ve interacted with disabled people without ever knowing throughout your life. At school, at work, at Starbucks. Just because someone looks healthy doesn’t mean they weren’t dealing with their joints dislocating an hour ago or having a seizure or using all their energy to get out of bed while in pain.

Abled people typically look for some kind of visual marker to know when someone is disabled, but it just doesn’t work that way. Some people look super healthy and others look super sick but are fine. You can’t just go on appearances.

4. The amount of people gaming the system is such a small fraction.

By and large, the people who are receiving disability benefits – anything from SSI to extended time on exams – are the people who need them. I think there’s a widespread misconception that these services are easy to get. Like you just show up, ask for them, and it’s no big deal.

In reality, getting nearly any sort of service, accommodation, mobility aid, or accessibility tool has an overly complicated, difficult, and incredibly stressful process. You are forced to jump through hoop after hoop to prove that you really need what you’re asking for. It’s often time consuming, please note how I’ve been waiting almost a year to get a wheelchair that I have a script for and have been approved for not once but three times by insurance. You go through a mountain of paperwork that ends up being redone several times. It’s also usually incredibly invasive and dehumanizing. It’s not a fun task, and at the end of the day none of it is even guaranteed.

So, yes, there are some people who scam the system. But I promise you, there aren’t as many people doing that as you think.

5. Making stricter rules for programs only makes things more difficult for those who need the service

Disabled people have to fight for everything they need. Take my family as your example. My brother and I have fought for our SSI, which has gotten messed up repeatedly. We’ve fought for accessibility in our home and in school. We had to fight to get modifications for our van, for a parking space at our apartment complex. For new wheelchairs and to be taken seriously by our doctors. For over two years, we fought just to get a job.

Sometimes being disabled feels like a constant battle and it’s you against the world. My heart sinks when I see people calling for stricter rules to qualify for social security for accessibility in education or for any sort of program designed to help disabled people. Because I know exactly what that will mean.

It’s going to be the innocent who are punished. It’s going to be those who are most at risk and vulnerable to be stripped of vital services. People of color, LGBTQ+, low income, homeless people. Making the process harder to qualify for or more complicated to apply for only strengthens the barrier that keeps disabled people out of society.

6. False accusations leave disabled people feeling unsafe in public spaces

No one should wake up in the morning and have to debate whether they want to risk injuring themselves by going out without their mobility aid to avoid harassment. Nobody should feel like it’s not safe to pull into an accessible parking space and then walk into a store. The fact that so many people are is a failure of society. It’s ableism. And it’s damaging.

Quite frankly, I don’t care how sure you are. Or if you think you’re helping by calling someone out for faking their disability. Ultimately, you’re actively harming the disabled community. Scroll through #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist on twitter sometime. You’ll see just how often disabled people are accused and harassed just for trying to get where they need to go.

7. There are much better alternatives if you actually want to help disabled people

Most importantly, there are a million things you can do to help make things better for disabled people. Make your business accessible. Vote for universal healthcare. Call out ableism. Include disabled people in your activism. Amplify disabled voices. Support disabled small business owners and artists. Get involved with our community and be an ally.

There’s a ton of ways to help disabled people, but trying to call out fakers is not the way to go.



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