Sickness and Lies? The BBC and one very damaging stereotype

I wonder sometimes, if non-disabled people have any idea the extent to which the idea of “faking” disability dominates many disabled people’s lives. 

I started writing this a few weeks ago. Since then, the subject has gone horribly mainstream. The BBC made a documentary. It’s called “Sickness and Lies”, and is staggeringly irresponsible. 

Society is obsessed with the idea that disabled people are faking it. It doesn’t really affect me anymore – since I lost the ability to stand – but it certainly used to. 

For a time, it seemed like every disabled character I saw in a tv drama was ultimately revealed to be a fraud. 

The internet opened new ways to feed this public fascination. Forums exist with the sole purpose of “exposing fakers”. Disabled and chronically ill people trying to find community online have their social media picked apart for so-called evidence. (And these are not people with large social media followings – very normal people find themselves targeted.)

Now the BBC has waded in, highlighting one of the most pernicious, damaging stereotypes we live with and saying essentially – well maybe those forums have a point. No smoke without fire! 

When I lost the ability to stand or walk, some years ago now, I passed from the potentially-faking-it category to join my husband in the visibly disabled – “good-disabled” – category. 

This documentary tries to create this same division – an artificial one, between disabled and chronically ill. 

In reality there is no such division. I recently listened to a podcast by a blind journalist. He uses a cane and has some residual sight. But he frequently fails to look blind enough for the public. He hears people scrutinising him, doubting his blindness. 

He describes the ways in which he – an actual blind man – finds himself attempting to perform blindness more convincingly. Trying to act more like the non-blind actors who play blind characters in Hollywood films. And if that isn’t screwed up, I don’t know what is. 

The faking it narrative affects us all. Some more than others. Back when I could walk, painfully, I chose not to go shopping for years because it meant using my wheelchair: I couldn’t face the questions & suspicion. And plenty of people are still there. 

I miss walking. But I’m grateful for the easy status that came with the loss. Which says it all, really.

Lucy Catchpole

P.S There are a lot of really good posts focusing on the BBC documentary, on social media and elsewhere. It’s called “Sickness and Lies” and I honestly don’t recommend watching it. Some disabled and chronically ill people’s images were used without consent in this documentary. Others who took part were given a distorted view of the aim of the film, believing it would primarily highlight the damage done by these forums. A twitter thread here by Vic Stamp boils the issues down nicely.

And the podcast was “Is There a Right Way to Act Blind?” by Andrew Leland from the NYT. It’s about the TV show In the Dark, and I highly recommend it. To listen to it as a podcast, narrated by Leland, search “The Daily” in any podcast app. 

(A version of this was first posted on instagram on August the 13th 2021.)

[Image description: a 2020 photo of me, a white 40ish mother with long brown hair, sitting in my wheelchair with my then 1yo daughter on my lap. We’re wearing green linen. I’m looking off to the side and smiling. Text on a cream paper background reads: “The most damaging stereotype?”] 

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