“”I spent my entire life surrounded by disabled people... And in 36 years of this, I never met a person who was feigning their disability to scam the system, advance themselves by taking advantage of others' sympathy, or "get attention."
Increased scrutiny and skepticism brought on by fakers can make life more difficult for people with disabilities.
There are a few reasons people may fake being disabled.
- Collecting government benefits
- Not wanting to work
- Dodging a draft
- Factitious disorder, in which the person feigns health conditions for sympathy
- Avoiding criminal prosecution
- A few people ask for a wheelchair at airport security in order to skip the line.
- Non-disabled people may claim that their pet is a service animal, even if the pet isn't trained to behave. This can lead to negative attitudes against service animals, and a misbehaving animal may distract actual service animals from their work.
- Some athletes have faked disabilities in order to get into the Paralympics.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-maskers sometimes pretend to have health conditions to avoid wearing protective masks. Unfortunately, this is fostering negative attitudes against disabled people who genuinely can't wear masks.
- Donald Trump has admitted to faking bone spurs on his feet to get out of military service in the Vietnam War. According to the daughters of the doctor who diagnosed him, the doctor did this as a favor for his landlord (Fred Trump) and received preferential treatment as a tenant in return.
- For 30 years, Mafia boss Vincent Gigante faked insanity to avoid prosecution.
- In 2007, a woman claimed to have severely limited mobility in order to gain disability benefits. She was filmed sweeping a stable yard at her job, without the mobility aid she "needed" and in no visible distress. She was required to pay back all the money she had wrongfully claimed.
- In 2017, a fisherman in the U.S. pretended to be too disabled for full-time work, even though he kept fishing commercially. When caught, he plead guilty.
- The 2019 college admissions scandal involved wealthy parents faking evidence of learning disabilities in their children so that the teens would get extra time on exams. These accommodations are meant to level the playing field for slower-moving students (like those with dyslexia or dysgraphia) and relieve anxiety in students who may struggle with staying calm. (Yet according to a 2003 study, extra time isn't beneficial to non-disabled students.)
Faking disability is generally illegal and may result in fines and/or a prison sentence (depending on the nature of the offense).
Consequences for disabled people
“”There are too many agencies out there with the ostensible purpose of helping us that still believe that as long as we technically can do something, like crab-walking our way into a subway station, we should have to do it. Like kids in a classroom, we pass each other the answers to tests: say this on that benefits application, not that. Use this careful wording in the ER so they'll give you pain meds that work. Here's how to stress your body out enough that it will do that weird thing tomorrow at your doctor's appointment, because sometimes our bodies love to just randomly work perfectly right when we most want them to fail, right when there are witnesses present who could maybe tell us why.
In response to fakers, government agencies may increase scrutiny and make people jump through more hoops in order to get services. This creates more work for disabled people (when the last thing they need is more challenges in life). The Trump administration has proposed monitoring the social media accounts of disabled people to make sure they aren't faking. (That could be serious trouble for people who don't match the stereotypes.)
In some cases, there may be threats of ending services altogether. This could be disastrous to the disabled people who depend on them.
And when more fraud occurs, more skepticism frequently follows, leading to false accusations against people with real disabilities.
“”People think because I can get up from my wheelchair that I am "faking" needing it and this isn't isolated. A lot of people do not know that ambulatory wheelchair users exist and it can lead disabled people like myself to be at risk of harassment and violence.
|—Annie Segarra, who has a limited ability to walk|
People with disabilities may be falsely accused of faking their conditions.
Sometimes people just glare or stare at disabled people who don't "look disabled." Other times, people with disabilities get accosted and called names. (This can be seriously bad if the person has a health condition that is triggered by stress.)
- The accuser doesn't understand how disabilities work. For example, many wheelchair users can briefly stand or walk a few steps. Many autistic people can use Twitter or lead outgoing lifestyles. Many legally blind and deaf persons still have some limited amount of vision or hearing. This doesn't mean they're faking.
- The accuser doesn't understand that chronic illnesses involve good days and bad days. Someone who only uses a cane or a service dog on certain days isn't faking.
- The disability is invisible. For example, someone who looks able-bodied could need an accessible parking spot due to severe chronic pain.
- The accuser wants to harm the reputation or livelihood of the disabled person.
- The accuser doesn't like the disabled person calling them out on bad behavior, so they say that the person isn't disabled. This may be done against autistic advocates in particular, sometimes overlapping with the No True Scotsman fallacy.
- The disabled person occasionally smiles in selfies on social media, and because the accuser thinks that disabled people must be sad 100% of the time, they see this as evidence of faking.
False accusations of disability can range from stressful to dangerous.
- An airplane worker accused a 10-year-old girl with severe asthma of faking her disability. The family was running late because the girl tired easily, and she ended up lying on the floor for half an hour before employees came to speak with her family. The little girl blamed herself for the employees' behavior, saying "This is my illness spoiling things again." The family was forced to miss their flight.
- Comedians Sara and Erin Foster mocked a woman with Lyme disease for being able to appear on TV and trying to raise awareness for her illness.
- Doctors and nurses may dismiss signs of a legitimate illness, especially if the patient has a mental disability. Thus, necessary care could be delayed or even denied entirely.
Consequences for disabled people
“”I am currently disabled. I've worked my way up to being up and about for an hour to two each day... Today, when I parked my car, a man came up and said suspiciously, "You don't look disabled." I said I just had surgery and rushed away. This happens almost any time I use my handicapped tag... I never know how to respond, and knowing that these interactions are coming makes me anxious about leaving my apartment.
People with disabilities already face stigma, and some of them are already hesitant to access accommodations for fear of being singled out. False accusations only make things worse for them.
Accusations of faking can be harmful to people who are legitimately disabled.
- People may be afraid to use their abilities. For example, a wheelchair user might be afraid to stand up for even 10 seconds for fear of being mocked or accused of faking.
- Disabled people may face pressure to prove their disabilities, in person or online. Some (especially those whose disabilities affect their judgment) may end up sharing personal medical details that could be seen by prospective employers.
- They may choose not to ask for help.
- People with disabilities may forego leaving the house due to fears about confrontation.
- Public accusations may harm someone's reputation.
Disabled people who think they're faking
“”I feel sick to my stomach, full of worry and anxiety that all this time I've just been in a bad mood and, as a result, have been abusing the NHS and its resources when there are other people out there who need the help more than me.
|—Fiona Thomas, depression survivor|
Sometimes people with legitimate disabilities start worrying that they're "faking it" somehow, or may even believe they don't deserve support.
- Imposter syndrome can impact disabled people too, even when there's overwhelming evidence they have a disability or illness.
- Some mental illnesses affect self-esteem and may cause thought distortions and beliefs that they are undeserving of care. Guilt over needing help may turn into worries about faking.
- Certain conditions (such as ADHD, depression, and PTSD) are diagnosed through questionnaires. Thus, the person lacks "concrete" proof of illness or disability.
- Many conditions vary in severity from day to day. Thus, on a good day, the person might suddenly worry they are faking.
- People may internalize the criticism they hear. For example, an autistic person who has always been told that they're "dramatic" and "too sensitive" may believe the name-callers instead of the doctor.
However, legitimate fakers tend not to spend time worrying about whether they're faking.
In some cases, people may mistake their symptoms for something else. For example, a person having a panic attack might think it's a heart attack, or a person with illness anxiety disorder (formerly known as hypochondria) might think they're dying of a brain tumor when it's just a stress headache. However, this isn't intentional, so self-blame isn't logical.
In the media
“”I can find several media faking-disability reveals but not nearly as many representations of fluid disabilities or disabilities on spectrums. There is a grave imbalance that causes people to think this is more common than it actually is.
Faking disability has long been a trope in the media. From The Three Stooges to Netflix's Insatiable, stories have told of able-bodied people pretending to be disabled for financial or social reasons.
- Forced to Fake It: How the System forces Disabled People to Lie - The Body Is Not An Apology
- Busting the Myths About Disability Fraud - New York Times
- First Victims of Admissions Scandal? — Inside Higher Ed
- Faking a disability to cut the line at the airport? - Freedom Resource Center
- Stop Faking Service Dogs — Center for Disability Empowerment
- Why You Should Think Twice About Faking a Service Dog - Easter Seals
- Why would you DO that? Faking disability at the Paralympics
- Paralympics: 'Faking disability is no different to doping' - The Week
- Being anti-mask doesn't make you disabled, Newsday
- The Hot New Far-Right Trend: Claiming a Disability to Avoid Wearing a Mask, Daily Beast
- I can't wear a mask, Autistictic
- Trump made up injury to dodge Vietnam service, his former lawyer testifies — Military Times
- Buttigieg, a military vet, says Trump pretended to be disabled to dodge the draft — NBC News
- Podiatrist's daughters say bone spur diagnosis that helped Trump avoid Vietnam draft was 'favor'
- Stables hand to pay £11,000 in disability fraud - The Grauniad
- Maine fisherman pleads guilty to faking disability, collecting $157,000 — Press Herald
- The most reprehensible part of the admissions scandal: faking disability accommodations — Vox
- "Everybody's Doing It": Cheating Scandal Shows How Privileged Kids Fake Disability - Hollywood Reporter
- Our Response to the Varsity Blues Scandal — Eye to Eye)
- Trump Administration Wants to Spy on Disabled People’s Social Media to Make Sure They’re Not Faking It — The Mary Sue
- Smart Ass Cripple: 'You're Disabled? Prove It!' — The Progressive
- Healthy People Are Faking Disabilities To Get A Service Dog — Cracked
- The Real Effect Of Insatiable's Fat-To-Thin Narrative, According to 3 Fat Activists - Bustle
- Stop saying I’m faking my disability — The Mix
- Shopper with service dog says Walmart employee accused her of faking a disability — Miami Herald
- The Trope of Faking It — Disability in Kidlit
- I'm Tired Of Being Accused Of 'Faking' My Need For A Service Animal — Huffington Post
- You're Faking It! Stigma Surrounding Invisible Disability — Custom Mobility
- The Problem With the Article That Calls Out 'Airport Wheelchair Imposters' for 'Faking' Disability — The Mighty
- Autism Speaks and the No True Scotsman Fallacy — This Mess
- I'm Not "High-Functioning" — Autistic Dreams
- EasyJet worker accuses girl, 10, of faking disability when family was late - Metro
- When Sick People Don't Look Sick Enough, They Must Be Faking It — Huffington Post
- I'm not faking it: the shaming of invisible illnesses — Alligator
- How doctors mistreat disabled patients — Pacific Standard Magazine
- Not an Act — Dear Prudence
- Not lazy, not faking: teaching and learning experiences of university students with disabilities — Disability & Society, Volume 34, Issue 2
- 7 Ways to Cope If People Think You Are Faking Symptoms After a Stroke — Very Well Health
- What If a Doctor Says You Are Malingering (Faking) to Get Disability Benefits — Disability Secrets
- One Chronically Ill Student Had The Perfect Response To Those Accusing Her Of 'Faking' Her Condition — Her
- Why imposter syndrome makes me feel like I’m faking my mental illness — Metro
- Am I Faking It? Thoughts On Having An Invisible Illness — Huffington Post
- Is it normal to feel like you are faking your mental illness? — Quora (tl;dr: Yes.)
- Fake Heart Attacks and Real Hope: My Journey with Anxiety — InterVarsity
- Tweet by Annie Segarra
- Hokus Pokus: Now You See It, Now You Don't - Feminist disability studies blog
- The Eight Cringiest Moments in 'Insatiable,' the Worst Show on Netflix - Vice