Disability Awareness Month ended on July 31, but I have one more thing I need to mention: Disability Cosplayers.
You know what I’m talking about: people who pretend to be disabled to take the accommodations that give PWDs access to public areas, events, and services.
One common aspect of this is misuse of accessible parking spaces. Of course I don’t mean the ableist notion that people use blue spaces who don’t “look disabled.” People with invisible disabilities exist and need those spaces. I mean the people who knowingly misuse the accommodation. When all the blue spaces are taken in a lot, I can’t park. I don’t need a space right by the door; I need a space with extra room to get in and out of my car. Parking is a minor issue, and one rife with privilege, since many of us cannot afford to own and maintain a car or adapt one for our particular disability. Yet it’s part of the endless stream of ableism we encounter daily that conveys to us that we are invisible and unimportant.
There are hundreds of ways in which able-bodied people demonstrate that they are only willing to provide accommodations as long as it’s convenient for them and as long as they don’t believe the accommodation will increase their own comfort. Able-bodied people will place their comfort over our need so often that people with disabilities must fight every day for the disability accommodations supposedly reserved for us.
For example, ADA-compliant bathroom stalls. These are fairly new. The ADA was signed into law in 1990; prior to that, businesses were not required to provide them. Able-bodied people always say they’ll “only be in there for a minute,” but speaking as someone waiting outside the only accessible stall in an otherwise empty restroom listening to people cajole small children into using the toilet for a solid 20 minutes while I hold it, I can assure you that “a minute” is relative. Those stalls were created to give PWDs access to the public spaces able-bodied people were accessing all along. Able-bodied people take them because the extra space is more comfortable and convenient, not because they require an accessible space.
Having to wait for a bathroom stall is, of course, a minor inconvenience in most cases. But the idea that necessary disability accommodations can be withheld from people with disabilities if an able-bodied person simply wants them is the larger issue. This entitlement is so commonplace that it’s is a feature of our everyday lives. The widespread problem of disability cosplay is wholly a creature of that entitlement.
No one polices who uses which bathroom stall, so able-bodied people, by and large, feel free to just take them without pretense. But in many cases, accommodations are accessed through a human gatekeeper. This has, since the passage of the ADA, given rise to the disability cosplayer.
One of the stereotypes people with disabilities have to fight endlessly is that we’re entitled and demanding, and we don’t actually need the accommodations we use. Every disability cosplayer angrily demanding that they be given a disability accommodation they do not need makes it that much more difficult for people with disabilities to access accommodations we do need.
Every PWD has stories about able-bodied people disbelieving us when we say we need something. Most PWDs have a story about being told we’re “faking it,” or that our mobility devices are just “a crutch” (ironically) and that we would “get stronger” without them. We’re told that we would be “better at managing pain” if we stopped taking our pain medications and just “learned to deal with” disabling pain. Ambulatory wheelchair users are routinely scolded, mocked, or even shouted at by able-bodied people accusing them of “faking” because they stood up to reach something in a store, or because they walked a few steps.
People with disabilities are routinely gaslit by healthcare workers who insist we’re lying or mistaken about our own bodies, our pain levels, our responses to treatments, or our needs. Nearly every PWD has heard at least a few of these:
- “You don’t need that (test, treatment, medication)”
- “It doesn’t hurt that bad”
- “You just want drugs”
- “Stop feeling sorry for yourself”
- “You couldn’t have had that reaction”
- “You just need to exercise”
- “You just need to lose weight”
- “You just need a more positive attitude”
- “It’s all in your head”
And of course the famous “Are you sure?” accompanied by a skeptical smirk. The nurses and doctors who believe us and treat us with respect and dignity are worth their weight in platinum.
Being disbelieved by family, friends, healthcare workers, and even strangers is one of the most commonly shared experiences of PWDs, especially women and BIPOC with disabilities. When an able-bodied person cosplays disability, it makes our lives that much more difficult because it confirms the suspicions of able-bodied people that we’re all just “faking it.” Even people with obvious physical disabilities or clear diagnoses are told we’re “faking it” about some aspect of our disability– the level of pain we experience, the things our bodies can or cannot do, or our experiences of ableism. There will be people who will contact me after reading this piece to tell me I’m “faking it” about how often we’re told we’re “faking it.”
The newest disability cosplay comes from able-bodied anti-maskers. They’ve even formed a little club that issues laminated cards that pretend to be “official”:
The cards say:
“FACE MASK EXEMPT CARD. I AM EXEMPT FROM ANY ORDINANCE REQUIRING FACE MASK USAGE IN PUBLIC. Wearing a face mask posses (sic) a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disability (sic) Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you. Department of Justice ADA Violation reporting number: (800) 514-0301. If found in violation of the ADA you could face steep penalties. Organizations and businesses can be fined up to $75,000 for your first violation and $150,000 for any subsequent violations. DENYING ACCESS TO YOUR BUSINESS/ORGANIZATION WILL BE ALSO REPORTED TO FTBA FOR FURTHER ACTIONS.”
Also on the card is an official-looking seal that purports to be from the “Freedom to Breathe Agency,” with a web address. No such agency exists and the web address leads to a broken website. (I used a picture clearly labeled “FRAUD” for obvious reasons; that doesn’t appear on the original.)
This bit of disability cosplay is particularly egregious because people with disabilities are at higher risk of complications from Covid-19, and are protected from deadly infection by responsible public behaviors like social distancing and mask-wearing. There are very few disabilities that preclude mask-wearing, and those who truly cannot wear a mask are relying on the rest of us to keep our masks on. Your mask prevents you from infecting other people by catching the droplets that come from your nose and mouth. This is especially important with Covid-19 as so many people are asymptomatic in the early stages of infection, and some apparently remain asymptomatic, although we have no idea why, making us all possible asymptomatic carriers. The failure of the US to provide adequate testing means that people are waiting days or even weeks for test results when they can even access a test, making it even more difficult to contain the spread as people go about their daily lives awaiting results.
The internet is full of videos of people throwing tantrums as they insist they have a disability that prevents them from wearing masks while the poor, underpaid store worker is just trying to enforce store policy and commonsense public health protections. People pretending to be from the non-existent “Freedom to Breathe Agency” are even intimidating store workers with lies about how they can be personally held liable for enforcing store mask policy. Please note that every single one of these disability cosplayers who claim to have an unnamed “breathing problem” are breathing just fine through their lengthy, shouted tantrums.
And every single one of these disability cosplayers is making life more difficult for people with disabilities, especially the very few people who genuinely cannot wear a mask and the people with real respiratory issues, such as asthma and COPD, who are at enormous risk of complications from coronavirus and are relying on the rest of us to supplement the protection their masks give them by wearing our own.
If people want to throw a public tantrum about wearing garments, whether it’s safety equipment like a mask or a hardhat, or pants, please leave us out of it. It’s difficult enough to get the accommodations we need.
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