Skip to main content

"World cup wheelchair fraud", or invisible illness and disability discrimination

Image: The Mirror

While I like how the World Cup brings people together, and I enjoyed watching the final, I generally didn't pay too much attention to the coverage.

However there was one World Cup based feature which I couldn't really ignore. The article was from The Mirror. The headline read: ''Disabled' Brazil fans miraculously jump out of wheelchairs to celebrate goals' and was accompanied by an image of Little Britain's Lou and Andy.

It seems touts were selling tickets meant for wheelchair users onto the general public at highly marked up prices - especially as if sold through the official channels, the companion's ticket would be free.

This fraudulent activity is obviously awful, with people making a lot of money by taking an opportunity away from people that genuinely need it.

But that's the thing - the implication in this article is that all of those standing did not have a genuine need. This is a worrying indication of misunderstanding around disability.

The headline sarcastically hints at miraculous healing of the legs, as if to say that anyone in a wheelchair is confined to that chair, and that to leave the chair is evidence of fraud.

This also seems to be the thoughts of the general public, with thirty people having taken photos of people in wheelchairs standing for goals.

The Telegraph also covered the story, but at least finished on a paragraph displaying a healthier perspective, explaining that "the investigation is likely to be tricky and sensitive for police because some of the fans may be disabled and unable to walk long distances, but can still still stand for short periods."

I've had problems in the past with people misunderstanding disability so I just wanted to use this story, and people's reactions to it, to relay that not everyone in a wheelchair can't stand, but also not everyone with a disability is in a wheelchair.

The phrase invisible illness is often used to describe chronic illnesses which cannot be seen, such as M.E. or POTS, but it could really be used to talk about a whole number of issues. It's helpful in that it reminds people that even though they can't see a mobility device, or actually the illness/disability itself, the impairment is still there.

I've seen several people moaning about "non-disabled" people using disabled parking spaces on social media. Often they indicate they've said something to the person at the time or they just want to have a vent.

Reasons for disability (parking, wheelchair or otherwise) which are not immediately visible could include brain injuries (someone recovering and rehabilitating from a stroke), pain disorders such as fibromyalgia, chronic illnesses involving fatigue, respiratory problems, conditions causing frequent and unpredictable blackouts/seizures, someone picking up their elderly and frail parent who they care for, someone picking up someone with any of the above conditions etc etc etc.

Basically, you have no idea what people's needs are.

I realise that people illegitimately using these spaces is a real problem. So, look for the blue badge. If it's not there, then perhaps ask the question. It's the immediate reaction of anger or suspicion I have an issue with.

What people might not realise is that asking for and accepting help is difficult. My Grandad was a stubborn, proud man and resisted getting a walking stick or hearing aid because they were for old people (he was in his nineties at the time).

It can also be hard asking for help when you don't look "the type" to need that kind of support. I'm in my early twenties and think that can affect people's perceptions of healthiness. Even health professionals have insisted I must be drunk, on drugs or an extreme diet after I've passed out, despite me showing documentation about my condition.

I also wouldn't have expected needing to use a wheelchair or motorised buggy at the airport, but only two years ago I did. It was when my POTS (a condition causing frequent fainting, fatigue and pain) was still really bad, and we went to Turkey.

A holiday after my final year of university (during which I was passing out everyday, if not a few times a day) was much needed. However as it was extremely hot I got weaker and weaker, passing out several times but also lacking the strength to walk very far at all.

While I usually look okay despite what's going on with my body, by the end of our holiday I looked pretty awful. I'd gotten increasingly pale, I looked shattered and through fatigue my posture was poor.

Arriving home we knew that walking across the airport or waiting in line (standing still being a trigger for my blackouts) wouldn't be possible, so we'd asked for some assistance. It was our first time doing this, and the airport staff were lovely and so helpful.

On the motorised buggy was myself, two older men and a lady. There wasn't enough room so my mum walked alongside us.

The queues for security were massive and slow, and I knew we'd made the right decision. Then, a man from the line stopped in front of the car - preventing us from moving. "If we have to stand in line, why can't they? No, I'm not having it. That's not fair."

It wasn't fair I was passing out all the time. It wasn't fair I couldn't fully enjoy my holiday. But to him this was the injustice.

His wife moved him away, embarrassed, and we got to move on. Walking through the crowds, my mum heard so many people tutting or commenting to each other sarcastically "oh so they can't walk then?".

The driver told me that this happens a lot.

I get that people are tired and grouchy, just wanting to get home, but these comments are indicative of a much wider ignorance around what disability is. For people's first thought to be suspicion or out right believing someone is faking a disability is pretty awful.

I would have so much rather been standing bored in that queue with everyone else, having enjoyed a nice holiday and without this problem.

Then there's the conversations I've had through an intercom at a train station when I've needed to use their access gate as there's no lift. Being told it was actually an access gate, and one time after explaining my condition being asked, in a disbelieving tone, "really?" As if I'd say "nah, just messing mate" before skipping away to the front entrance and stairs.

When I told him I was going to the hospital to see my specialist (based in London) he told me I was going the wrong way. As in, the local hospital is near here, so you're a liar.

Looking through a security camera he'd clearly decided he didn't believe me, because I was standing. I looked fine. It was so odd and I felt like I was on trial, having to explain myself and plead with him to be let in.

I'm now doing a lot better, but the fact I've had to deal with my body failing me, my own frustrations over this and then also other people's ignorance and rudeness is ridiculous.

You only need to look to Everyday Ableism to see countless examples of discrimination faced by people with all kinds of disabilities and illnesses, visible or or not.

This piece from The Mirror thinks it's doing a good thing pointing out the wrong-doers but it's really not. A small (tiny) minority may abuse the system in a given situation, but articles like this add to the suspicion and prejudices people sadly already seem to have.

That's also why I hate the documentaries, of which there seem to be a huge amount lately, about all the benefit cheats or immigrants supposedly sponging off our government. It's such a tiny proportion of people  (and only 2% of estimated total annual fraud in UK) and all it does is breed contempt and suspicion to anyone genuinely in that situation.

I remember reading a blogpost by a friend of a friend who'd had a stroke and was in rehabilitation. She was making good progress and went to a concert in her wheelchair. She even managed to stand for a short while. That should be a brilliant, blissful feeling but she was then met with suspicious glances.

Articles like this are only going to add to that experience. It's not anyone's, nor a a major publication's, responsibility to make judgements on how valid someone's disability is.

Everyone's fighting their own battle, which you know nothing about, which is worth remembering in life generally but especially when you begin to raise an eyebrow over whether someone is really entitled to some kind of benefit.

It's 2014. Things are complicated. Let's not be on a witch hunt for anyone with a problem we don't understand.

Have you experienced discrimination for not "appearing" to have a disability? Let me know in the comments below.

Click here to read what else I've written about my experience with my chronic illness POTS.