Last month, I went to a non-partisan Campaign School, where women learned the nuts and bolts of running a winning campaign for political office in Canada. We all said a bit about ourselves, and I stood up and introduced myself as a Disability Rights Activist.
I spent the rest of the weekend being told how “Bad Cripples” are ruining the system for everyone else, and how every problem that I discussed, from how low disability-support payments were to how difficult it is to get around the city with a wheelchair, was caused by That Person.
You know That Person. The one Everyone Knows who doesn’t have a real disability. They could work – of course they could! – they’re just in it to scam the system. This One is bad because whatever he claims about his disability, it’s obviously exaggerated because no one could be in that much pain. That One is bad because she decided to move to another province where the disability support payments are better – obviously she’s just in it for the money.
Regardless of where someone fell in the political spectrum, they felt it very important that I knew that it wasn’t the government’s lack of support for people with disabilities and their families, it wasn’t the surplus of societal barriers, it wasn’t even their own individual fears of disability that caused any financial distress. It’s those Bad Cripples who scam the system and totally ruin it for the Good, Deserving Ones.
People tell me anecdotes about Their Friend (or a Friend of a Friend) who totally confessed to scamming the system, or they tell me about how Their Friend isn’t really disabled, and they can tell, because of X, Y, or Z.
I’m going to confess something to you: According to the way a lot of people define “Bad Cripples”, Don and I are really Bad Cripples.
I’ll start out with the comments. Both of us have very bleak senses of humour, and both of us (me especially) say some of the most awful things. These include things like “I just married him for the disability cheques,” “Damn it, I should have lied and told everyone your Cancer spread so I could get extra time to finish my assignments,” “Oh, Don fakes not being able to talk very loudly so he doesn’t have to deal with the Student Loan people”, and even “Oh, the wheelchair’s just for show.”
You might be thinking “That’s obviously you joking around, Anna! No one really thinks you’re serious.”
Yes, yes they do. All the time. I’ve been talked to by professors about my joking comments about Don’s Cancer, and asked not to make them in front of other students. I’ve gotten really angry @replies on twitter about some of them. I have an email I can’t quite get myself to delete that’s all about how I’m a horrible wife who’s just using Don for his money.
I have no doubt that people have said, either to you or someone you know, something that sounds like they’re just gaming the system, including a breezy “Oh, I’m just gaming the system.” But you have no idea if they’re serious or not, or what their circumstances are, or how much pressure they’re under, internally or externally, to “pass for normal”.
The second reason people think of “fakers” is the “I know stories of people who don’t have real disabilities and they get all this financial support!”
Here’s the thing: I don’t have an obligation to tell you what my ability status is.
My ability status is between me and my doctor. I have made the choice to share it with a few friends, and my husband. I don’t have to tell you. I don’t have to tell my teachers. I don’t have to tell the pharmacist, the person who’s demanding I justify my tax-status, or my landlord. I have not discussed it with Student Accessibility Services on campus. I have not disclosed to the people on any of the committee meetings I’m on. I didn’t tell anyone at Campaign School.
Because it is none of their business.
I do not owe it to you, or anyone else, to explain why we’re raking in those big disability cheques.
I also want you to consider that you don’t always know what disability will look like.
You can’t tell by looking at my friend with the mental health condition that she tried to climb out a third floor window and jump because she couldn’t take the idea of another day at her job, but you can probably tell she isn’t working right now while she recovers from the experience. You can’t tell by looking at my friend that she was bullied so badly at work that she has panic attacks whenever she thinks of stepping foot in the neighbourhood of her former workplace. Until Don got his cane, and then his wheelchair, lots of people wanted to know why he wasn’t working – aren’t people who have mobility issues always in wheelchairs?
I know people who tell me “Bad Cripple” stories are trying to be helpful. They want me to know that they understand how difficult it is, and that if it weren’t for all those Bad, Faking Cripples out there, Don and I wouldn’t be living entirely off the largess of his family and my scholarship money. (The government expects that I should take out student loans to pay for Don’s medication that he needs to live. Oh goody – overwhelming debt in exchange for a husband who lives! Thanks, Nova Scotia! You continue to be awesome. Yes, the big disability cheques comment was a joke.) What I think they don’t want to do is question why it is so difficult. Bad Cripple stories give us someone – a conveniently faceless group that Doesn’t Include Us – to blame.
I think a lot of people are going to rush to tell me stories about how this all may be true, but they totally know of this person who is totally lying about being disabled. Please consider whether or not that anecdote will contribute to a conversation, or just remind people with disabilities that they’re viewed with suspicion and have to prove their status to you.