“Unpacking the Fake Disability” aims to spread awareness about harm in assuming disability status
Friday, April 8, the Disability Advocacy Club (DAC) hosted a presentation on the “Fake Disability” myth and why assuming disability status harms the disabled community. The presentation, given by members of the club, sought to both educate the broader Willamette community and provide a sense of support and community to those with disabilities at Willamette.
Invisible disabilities, as explained in DAC’s presentation, are disabilities that one might not be able to see without having an in-depth understanding of someone’s life and abilities, and can include mental health disabilities, neurodivergence and chronic illness. The presentation also detailed undiagnosed disabilities and the barriers that come with diagnosis, before describing how both invisible and undiagnosed disabilities contribute to what is referred to as the “Fake Disability” myth: the concept that the majority of disabled people and people with invisible or undiagnosed disabilities are accused of “faking” their disability. This myth is harmful because it is a way to “justify denying accommodations and even acts of ableism.”
DAC used “The Helen Keller Conspiracy” as an example of how able-bodied people spread the fake disability myth. Popular with younger people, the idea that “Helen Keller either faked her disability, faked the accomplishments she achieved or never actually existed at all…implies disabled people are either ‘incompetent’ and unable to ‘function’ in society at all or are practically not disabled at all and can ‘function’ perfectly in society.”
DAC also showed how the fake disability myth is perpetuated even at Willamette by explaining how disabled students struggle to receive accommodations due to assumptions of what disabled “looks like.” A situation that involves a student at Willamette Law School who [claims that her expulsion was due to discrimination based on her disability] was also referenced, but DAC Vice President Charlotte Holmes (‘22) emphasized that the situation is alleged, and said “Neither I, nor DAC, are making statements about the scenario.”
However, the situation with the law school is what prompted DAC to hold the event, Holmes explained: “Initially, [the event] was inspired by ‘Oh my goodness, this thing happened on campus regarding a student allegedly being accused of faking their disability’ and sparked a lot of conversation about how we think it’s unfair that so many people are being accused of faking their disability. And then, also, a lot of personal angst about hearing one too many Helen Keller jokes on campus.”
As a whole, DAC’s presentation emphasized that one cannot know someone’s disability status just by looking at them, and assumptions in any form, be that about someone’s abilities, needs, etc., are harmful to the disabled community. Holmes added, “One of the big takeaways from [the event] is…also if you are someone that is disabled, you are valid, regardless of if you’re diagnosed, undiagnosed, have a visible or invisible disability, all of those things. You are valid if you are disabled, if you are able-bodied, don’t judge others.”
DAC President Andrew Caruana (‘24), who also presented at the event, reiterated this idea and emphasized his desire to affirm other disabled students: “I know with my cerebral palsy the constant chronic pain is a struggle for me and I know that I’ve had tons of conversations just with students on campus who have had similar struggles. It’s an isolating feeling, being in pain constantly and having no one really know about it unless you tell them… I wanted [the event] to be an open conversation instead of feeling like you’ve got this terrible secret thing that no one else knows about.”
The presentation ended with some more lighthearted disability memes shared by club members, followed by a time for discussion amongst the small group. Many chose to share personal experiences of situations where harmful assumptions were made about their own disability status. Others spoke on their frustrations specifically within Willamette, such as professors, other faculty or staff denying them accommodations.
This time for vulnerability and support aligned with the main purpose of the event, Holmes explained: “On one hand, we do want to have outreach to people who want to be allies and people who want to be educated on how ‘how do I be a better ally to the disabled community,’ but to an extent our first priority is really allowing students who have invisible, undiagnosed or chronic illness or a niche disability to feel validated and know that these conversations are happening on campus.”
As a whole, Holmes and Caruana agreed that the event was very successful, with Holmes highlighting, “We had really productive conversations, we had some good turnout.” Though DAC is not planning on holding any more events because the end of the year is quickly approaching, they continue to meet weekly on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. in Montag Den. Caruana emphasized that the space is open to students with disabilities and their allies and stated, “I want…disabled folks who don’t necessarily come to DAC and don’t feel as represented to know there is a good group of people on campus who appreciates them and validates them. I want those people to know that the way they experience life and their experiences are valid.”