There is a really common experience that I think is shared by every disabled person at some point, often daily or weekly, and that is being accused of faking ones impairment or overstating it’s disabling impact to gain sympathy/support/access to adaptations and so on. It’s clear disablism in action, stemming from a narrative lots of people have been fed; that disabled people are scroungers, malingerers, untrustworthy, prone to exaggerate, or seeking more than is fair. That there are good deserving disabled people and undeserving scroungers who don’t deserve support. As we are all apparently superb actors it is hard, for the people who believe this is actually how the world is, to tell the “good” disabled people from the “bad” ones, so they scattergun and quiz all of us that don’t meet whatever their personal stereotype of a disabled person is that day. Or any disabled person that got to the one accessible loo or parking spot before they did. So far I’ve not met any disabled person, regardless of appearance or other “display” of impairment reality, that hasn’t been accused of not really being as disabled as they say they are. I’ve also never met one that doesn’t dislike having to constantly validate ourselves to random accusers.
There is a damaging idea that the best way to counter the marginalising behaviour that comes from the widespread belief in this disablist narrative is for disabled people to PROVE HARDER that they are disabled. Badges, cards, lanyards are touted as ways to prove that you are a real disabled person and that you should not be targeted for abuse and disbelief. You are one of the good ones and would like the nice treatment not the mean stuff please and thank you.
The Problem with the Prove Harder Approach
This approach doesn’t do anything to challenge the pernicious idea that disabled people (or people asking for adaptations) are either lying or overstating need. While large swathes of the population still believe that disabled people can’t be trusted, they will continue to doubt, minimise and deny disabled people when we request access or adaptations. Not just disabled people that don’t display the chosen symbol, but also those who do. All we have to do is look at the suspicion shown towards people using blue badges to assist with parking, not just from non-disabled people who think they are helping by interrogating us, but by other disabled people who have taken in these messages and assume others are not as valid as they are.
I’m writing this as we move into the second wave of lockdown in the UK and I’ve been watching this internalised disablist message surging around the “Sunflower Lanyard” community where, armed with the barest anecdotal evidence and personal suspicions, disabled people readily accuse other disabled people of the things they dislike being accused of so much they brought in a special lanyard to try and avoid. Scepticism about the veracity of the claims of those with a lanyard who say they can’t wear a mask abounds. Rather than countering the mistrust, they in fact reinforce it (by publicly validating the fallacious assumption) and reproduce it (by spreading the narrative).
We also need to quickly talk about the problem with the idea that being “visibly” seen as disabled somehow acts as a panacea for experiencing the pain of disablism. I get that some disabled people cling to the idea almost as a defence against the cruelness of our disablist society, but wearing a label that makes you stand out as “disabled” be it a mobility aid, a lanyard or a black triangle simply makes it easier to be targeted by disablist people and state actors. As someone who went from being an ambulant disabled person to a wheelchair user I can say that I have only experienced an increase in disablist encounters, and that they are often more violent and threatening now than they were then. I still get asked to prove my needs, and explain my medical history. People still refuse to move from the wheelchair spaces and get angry when I insist. I have nothing against being proud of who you are, but I think we must stop perpetuating the myth that enough visibility, enough validation, enough proof is all we need to make this stop.
Every time we ourselves act in ways that perpetuate the disablist proposition that we are untrustworthy, that those of us that ask for adjustments so we can attempt to navigate the world are probably faking, we make it more likely that we will continue to be treated that way. Instead of building a world where we are no longer challenged, we build one with ever increased suspicion.
What can we do instead?
We need to visibly challenge and dismantle the disablist narratives that say;
- disabled people are not to be believed or trusted
- it is possible to fully understand an individuals impairment reality just by looking at them once
- that it is the fault of disabled people and non-disabled “fakers” that businesses don’t have adequate provision for the number of disabled people that exist
- that businesses are doing the best they can for disabled people
- that disabled people can ever hope to be liberated by capitalist enterprise
- that disabled people are rare, and if you see multiple in one day some of those are “faking”
- that it is better for all disabled people to suffer than one non-disabled person access something that wasn’t designed for their use (better to treat all as guilty until proven innocent)
- that being easily acknowledged as a disabled person by a disablist society is all you need to stop people being treating you in a disablist manner
This is why I don’t support schemes that suggest having disabled people wear badges or similar to mark themselves out, or to have disabled people carry cards to prove they are disabled. Especially when some of them (this example is from Access Card) come with messages like this that uncritically support the idea that is is appropriate to be asked for evidence and stoke the fear mongering disablist narrative that people asking for reasonable adjustments are frequently faking without one shred of researched evidence to back them up:
Why should I have to provide evidence?
It’s only appropriate for certain types of provider to ask for evidence – particularly those offering things like free Essential Companion tickets, concessions or discounts which you access remotely i.e. over the phone or internet.
The fact is that people, disabled and non-disabled have in the past exploited some organisations reasonable adjustments – this ultimately means that disabled people with genuine needs suffer in the long run.Taken from the Access card website FAQ’s Sept 2020
We have to ask ourselves, is this what we want disabled people’s liberation to look like? Is living under constant suspicion really the best we can do?