One of the most frustrating aspects of having an invisible disability is how common it is for others to doubt that you are “really” disabled because you don’t “appear” to have any mobility challenges. This often manifests as other people accusing you of “faking” your disability when you ask for accommodations or mobility devices. After comedian Andy Richter posted a tweet calling out a man he saw at the airport who he thought was “faking” his limp, the disability community stepped up to educate him (and others) about how invisible disabilities work.
Richter, who currently appears on “Conan” as Conan O’Brien’s “sidekick,” shared on Wednesday that he saw a man walk up to the gate, then “fake” a limp when it was time for passengers with disabilities to board.
Just saw a guy, I kid you not, walk up to the gate, hear they were boarding only people with disabilities at the moment, and he faked a limp and got on the plane
— Andy Richter (@AndyRichter) September 12, 2019
We don’t know whether Richter’s assumption was correct. But as Twitter users pointed out, that’s the issue — he believed just because he saw the man walking normally and then with a limp, he must have been faking the limp. But the assumption reveals a common misunderstanding about disabilities: that any challenges caused by a disability always result in the same symptoms and the same level of disability at all times. In reality, symptoms can flare unpredictably and/or in response to stimuli you can’t always see.
Twitter users with invisible disabilities responded with examples of how they have appeared to not be disabled even when they were in pain, and how people judging them from the outside can make them afraid to utilize accommodations they need because others might accuse them of “faking.”
I have psoriatic arthritis. When my medications fade or I’m flaring I can walk fairly normal until one of my knees goes out due to swelling and inflammation. Even being careful, it can be extremely unpredictable. Come back when you have completed 8 years of med school.
— Scotty E. (@Scotty_Evil) September 12, 2019
It took me so so long to muster the courage to ask for wheelchair assistance at the airport. Because I can walk, so I was so afraid of ppl getting angry at me. But the trek through the airport is so slow and painful for me, why torture myself.
— Caitlin (@ThereWillBStars) September 12, 2019
As a disabled person I’d rather a “faker” got on the plane before me than a disabled person was mocked on social media by someone who has no idea if they are disabled or not.
— Corry ♿️???? (@CorryShawComedy) September 12, 2019
Shaming people w/ invisible disabilities isn’t the call out you think it is. Often I use a cane, other times a wheelchair, if it’s a good day I’ll walk fine unaided in the morning & by afternoon will limp or wobble b/c of pain. Have some human decency & don’t be an ass.
— brenna denae (@girl_wunder) September 12, 2019
This is a super shitty take. After spinal cancer and surgery, I limp sometimes, but not others when I can correct my gait. The ‘disabled fakers’ stuff is why I get harassed in public transport (by exclusively men, btw).
— Matilda Grew Up (@MatildaGrewUp) September 12, 2019
Air travel can be extremely challenging for people with disabilities of all kinds. In order for disabled people to get to their destination safely, many require accommodations and mobility devices that are not always as easy to get as able-bodied people might think.
Earlier this year, the first Department of Transportation data on airline mishandling of mobility devices revealed that an average of 25 wheelchairs a day were reported damaged after flights in the month of December. Many disabled passengers have spoken out after airport or airline employees who were supposed to assist them didn’t; for example, in 2018, a woman spoke out after employees at London Stansted Airport denied her the assistance she had requested because she didn’t “look disabled.” In 2017, a paraplegic man dragged himself on his hands through Luton Airport after his wheelchair was left behind and the airport couldn’t provide him with a safe alternative.
And last year, the Paralyzed Veterans of America filed suit against the U.S. Transportation Department to force the implementation of regulations that require single-aisle planes to have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.
When you need accommodations to fly but have to endure questions and disbelief from onlookers who think you’re just “gaming the system,” flying becomes a stressful, exhausting process. In an essay on The Mighty, contributor Charis Hill revealed what it’s really like flying as a person with an invisible disability:
I do not like boarding the plane before everyone else. I don’t like that it calls attention to me and means I will be on the plane longer. I fear I’ll be asked to give my seat to someone who fits the disabled image better than me, as if looking at me fills the criteria for that judgment. There’s no way you could know the debilitating pain I try to endure every moment just by looking at me.