It’s not possible to figure out whether someone has a disability or a health condition based on their appearance, but when Lexi Baskin, a college student currently undergoing treatment for cancer, returned to her parked car a couple of weeks ago, she found it covered with flyers shaming her for using an accessible parking spot.
Baskin posted about the incident on Facebook and Twitter. Her words and photos of her car quickly went viral, inspiring other people with invisible disabilities and illnesses to share their stories — being called a “faker” for getting their own wheelchair out of their car’s trunk, or told that they don’t really need to sit in a priority seat on public transportation.
“Just because you can’t physically observe something does not mean that a person is not feeling it,” Baskin wrote on Facebook. “Just because I look fine in the 2 minutes I walk from my car to the building does not mean I am not battling cancer and undergoing radiation treatment.
Maybe the people who plastered Baskin’s car with posters calling her a “selfish, terrible person” — and claiming, “Not really, just lazy” next to a picture of the accessibility symbol — thought that they were doing a service. It’s common in our society to equate disability with easily visible impairments; if we see a vest-wearing service dog, a wheelchair, or a walker, we jump to conclusions.
If someone looks young and healthy and isn’t using a mobility aid, we assume that they aren’t disabled.
It doesn’t help that there isn’t much representation of disability in the media. The representation that we do have is often stereotypical and reinforces those assumptions about what a disability looks like.
I get it — I’ve actually made that mistake too, even though I have a genetic condition that affects my mobility called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. I’ve made assumptions even though I was raised by a visually impaired mom who shared my disability. I have walked with my friend, who uses a wheelchair, through a parking lot filled with cars parked in the accessible spaces; I muttered to myself, “Do they all really need to use these?”
But it’s a mistake that we all need to stop making.
We can’t figure out whether someone needs an accessible parking spot, an accessible bathroom stall, a seat on the train, audio captions, Braille text, or any other number of accessibility resources just by looking at them.
When I’m taking the train, with or without my bright lavender cane, I usually need a seat. Between my severe balance issues and the energy and strength required to hold myself upright on a moving train, standing with help from the grab handles is exhausting — even on a good day. But when I enter the train without my cane, people make assumptions about my access needs. They don’t offer me their seats; they don’t give me the extra few seconds I need to use a handrail as I walk onto the platform below; they go around me when I’m walking carefully up and down the stairs. (To be fair, a lot of people don’t do these things even when I have my cane, but at least more people are respectful when I do.)
My disability isn’t always obvious if I don’t have a mobility aid, especially not to passerby only interacting with me for mere seconds.
I don’t use the term invisibly disabled — I prefer to describe it as “passing as nondisabled.” As a queer person, I know what it’s like to constantly waver between passing and not passing in society. People make snap judgments and quick assumptions: She’s holding hands with a woman so she’s gay; she’s struggling on these Boston cobblestones so she must be drunk.
People that are quick to label someone as “faking a disability” aren’t actually standing up for disability rights.
They’re demanding evidence (or in many cases, not even giving the person a chance to offer an explanation) from someone who could be dealing with a disability or health condition. While some disabilities, like mine, are lifelong and genetic, most people have a relationship to disability that is constantly in flux. Mine is in flux depending on the season, my pain levels, stress, exhaustion, treatment, mobility aids, exertion, and a number of other factors. People could be dealing with a brand new chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis. They may be starting a new treatment for multiple sclerosis with unfamiliar side effects.
Most disabled people — including those disabled since birth and those with more obvious disabilities — have struggled with getting other people to take them seriously. That’s something that many people don’t realize when they label someone as a “faker.”
People with disabilities frequently come up against bias in the medical community, a lack of access to comprehensive sex education, ableist comments from friends and family members, and constant media messages that center disabled people on a strict binary: We’re either inspiration or pitiful.
To really support the diverse disability community, it’s important to break down myths about what disability “looks like.”
I’m young and very stylish, and no, my cane is not a costume. Yes, it’s badass, bright purple, and decorated with glitter — but it’s not an accessory. It’s a mobility aid that I need. If you see me without my cane, that doesn’t mean I’m faking my disability — it just means that I made the choice to go somewhere without it. Many wheelchair users can walk, a lot of disabled people don’t need a mobility aid at all, or their assistive devices are less visible, like a hearing aid or a brace.
I love seeing hashtags like #InvisiblyDisabledLooksLike, #DisabledAndCute, and #DisabilityTooWhite take off, because they’re helping show disability’s vast diversity. We need to work on our internalized bias, and think about the many people whose stories we aren’t seeing and how that shapes our perception of the disability community. I don’t currently use a placard to park my car in accessible spots, but I’ve thought about it; many times, I’ve resisted out of fear that someone might leave shameful notes on my car or yell at me as I cross the lot — especially if I don’t have my cane. And that’s not a fear anyone should have.