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A Magazine for Sheffield

Questioning Disability: But You Don't Look Disabled

I have lost count of the number of times I have been questioned when I tell someone that I am disabled. But what does a disabled person actually look like, and what motivates people to question whether I truly am disabled? Like it or not, most of us have a stereotype of how we expect a disabled person to look and I do not fit it. But of course, it's impossible to determine if a person is disabled by their appearance, because disability is not an aesthetic. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I like to think most of us understand that not all conditions can be seen. So why am I questioned so often? Why are my ‘visibly disabled’ counterparts also questioned so frequently? The answer is simple: we are encouraged to suspect malingering. We are taught to be sceptical rather than accepting, and this leads to some people feeling compelled to question the legitimacy of a person’s disability. Not everyone verbalises this, but it undoubtedly influences our behaviour. So who teaches us? The tabloids regularly vilify disabled people by linking us to benefit fraud. Their stories fuel the idea that people are disability benefit cheats because they look or act a certain way. But offenders are fraudsters simply because they commit fraud. Associating their crime with mowing a lawn or wearing high heels perpetuates the narrative that disabled people are not able to do everyday things deemed to be ‘normal’. There are entire TV shows dedicated to exposing benefit fraud, with vigilantes shaming those faking disability for our entertainment and further encouraging the public not to take disabled people at face value. This is spoon-fed to the media by a government that prioritises benefit fraud over tax fraud, despite the latter costing them considerably more. They also actively encourage people to report suspected benefit fraud and those accused are often shopped on the grounds that the person does not look or act disabled. This incendiary propaganda allows the Tories to justify their cruel restructuring of disability benefits and the cuts that underpin it. Whilst I don't condone fraud of any kind, I question the motives behind encouraging society to doubt disabled people. It's impossible to determine whether someone has committed such a crime simply by looking at them. Many people’s conditions are hidden. Many people’s conditions fluctuate, which can mean they may be capable of doing something one day that they cannot do the next. I know of people who use mobility aids like wheelchairs intermittently for this reason and they are often targeted more as a result. Not only has a culture of disbelief and suspicion emerged amongst the general public, but this has led to people feeling entitled to question and report disabled people for, essentially, not looking disabled enough. It has meant that people like me are regularly questioned, sometimes interrogated, on the validity of our disablement, which is distressing and incredibly insulting. This trend has spread far beyond assuming disabled people fake their conditions just to claim social security. I have been questioned when using accessible toilets. I have been questioned by medical professionals, some of whom explicitly told me that they thought I was ‘putting on’ seizures and paralysis. A friend of mine was physically attacked on a bus because she sat in priority seating. The perpetrator didn't believe her when she explained she was disabled. The effect of this extends to every part of our lives and, at its worst, it fuels hate crime. We need to ask ourselves why we are being taught that disability is perceptual. We need to recognise that this rhetoric creates an unnecessary, hostile environment. We need to acknowledge the power that our questions have, and instead turn those questions on the government and media for their persecution of disabled people. 22 November to 22 December is UK Disability History Month. This year's theme is language. Title image: An actual Daily Express headline. )

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