Are you faking it?

Peter Williams
People can dismiss the disabilities of others or accuse them of faking. They may think those with a disability are weak. Or they don't try hard enough to get better. T.V shows have characters that fake their disability. If people watch them they can become suspicious we are faking ours too. People expect disabilities to be visible, but some medical conditions are hard to see. If people can't see them they might doubt they exist. Some people like to think they are too strong or clever to get a disability. They don't understand it's by chance someone becomes disabled.
Posted by: 
Peter Williams on 12/07/2013
Empty wheelchair on a beach

Ignorance is no excuse for accusing someone of "faking" a disability.

Have you ever been accused of faking your disability? If you have, you probably wished that you could trade places with your accuser. That way they could experience the chronic pain and lack of mobility that accompanies a disability, while you could use your new found health to enjoy something you love. This reversal of fortune might help your accuser to understand how unjust it is to call people with disabilities fake.

Ignorance is one reason people can be dismissive about disability. There are thousands of diseases and conditions that cause disability and you would need the mind of a savant to remember them all. But some people can be very sceptical. When they meet someone with an illness they don't know of, they might doubt it exists. They may prefer to believe people who suffer it are faking rather than admit their own lack of knowledge.

Dismissive attitudes

It's sometimes our friends who dismiss our disabilities. They don't understand why we can't work or play sport anymore. They may have unrealistic expectations about what doctors can do for us. They might not realise that there are no tools to just fix us.

Linda McNulty is a former president of the Chicago Endometriosis Association. She has been diagnosed with multiple hormone deficiencies, sacroiliac joint dysfunction and endometriosis. She has also fractured six vertebrae in her spine because a lack of growth hormone weakened her bones.

She is angered by attitudes friends and strangers have towards her disability. Why do people insist they have the answers when our own doctors have none, says McNulty.  I was having repeat endometriosis surgery because the microscopic nodules were growing back and causing pain. My ex-best friend said I was addicted to surgery.

People who have conditions that are poorly understood or difficult to treat are often viewed with scepticism. McNulty says Anytime you have a condition with no known cause, no known treatment, and no known cure it's trouble.

It's complicated

People with a disability often have multiple disorders that interact with each other, increasing the severity of their condition. Some illnesses also have symptoms that mysteriously come and go. This can confuse some people. They may think of disability as a simple, never changing condition. They can become suspicious when our disabilities defy their beliefs or expectations.

Lori Day Phelps enjoyed good health until a tumour in her brain affected her balance. As a result she has difficulty walking and developed a large curve in her spine known as scoliosis. The former certified nursing assistant also suffers frequent falls which has caused injuries to her pelvis.

Phelps has had difficulty getting people to accept her injuries are genuine.  Both friends and strangers have told me I am faking, she says. They don't make any effort to understand my injuries. They haven't heard of them and they can't see them so as far as they're concerned they don't exist.

Some medical professionals have also been cynical about Phelps's condition. She recalls being unable to get to her feet after falling in the street. When the paramedics arrived they didn't believe me when I told them about my injuries. They told me to get up and acted like I was an inconvenience, says Phelps.

Sceptical doctors

When doctors can't find a reason for someone's illness, it often arouses suspicion their condition isn't genuine. Marigold Groot was diagnosed with systemic Lupus twenty years ago. When she began seeking help she says, I had numerous doctors tell me I was faking.

Groot struggled to continue her career as a psychotherapist due to fatigue and chronic pain from Lupus. She found not all her co-workers accepted her disability. This was especially difficult for me to fathom, since as psychotherapists, we are supposed to be understanding of and have empathy for our clients, she says.

Groot also provided training to other clinicians on hidden disabilities and living with disabilities. She says, While some colleagues got it and gained a better understanding, others accused me of grandstanding and trying to promote myself. Instead of trying to gain additional insight into the real issues their clients face.

It seems somewhat pointless to argue with people who dismiss our disabilities. Maybe one day fate will intervene and give them firsthand experience of a disability, and then they might understand how badly they have misjudged the character of people with a disability. They might finally realise that people with a disability are not lying or weak and that it's up to the gods, not them, to decide who has to live with a disability and who doesn't.

Readers comments (5)

Peter thank you for writing this article. It needed to be said and hopefully someone reading will have a better understanding of what we deal with daily. Some times I wish I could say that I am faking my lupus but that would be untrue. It is a part of me and it may determine how I feel but it wont dictate who I am. Hopefully one day there will be a cure bit until then I just live my life the best way I can.

I wish a relative of mine who, I have been told, suspects me of over dramatizing my health problems would read this article.

Good article Peter. I clearly understand your frustration. Even for someone where a disability is obvious, there is often a myriad of other conditions that accompany it. People often assume that not being able to walk is the disability full stop. Sometimes, it may be matched by problems with bodily organs and sensory abilities, for instance. You only wish people would think about the pervasiveness of a disability, the fact that it is forever as far as that individual is concerned, and the effect it has on their own expectations and perceptions.

Hi Peter. Great article - excellent use of examples. Very well-written. We loved reading it.

From Megan Waters and Isabella Fels

Very interesting. Amazing to read about how insensitive people can be. Sure, as with anything, there are *some* people who dramatise and exaggerate symptoms of illness, and even some people who invent them completely, including taking non-existent symptoms to doctors, but this certainly shouldn't be assumed of anyone! Surprising too that some doctors don't know better..... perhaps it's when symptoms present differently from what they're used to. As a yoga instructor though, I've heard about how fybromyalgia is a condition which until recently many doctors doubted its existence..... so perhaps it's partly a case of things being slow to change, and new discoveries being slow to be believed. Perhaps in some ways it was easier for people in the old days when doctors knew relatively little about the human body and many illnesses involving pain and lack of mobility and energy were a mystery, so perhaps they were less suspicious of patients whose problems they couldn't pin down!

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