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What Would You Do About A Disability Hoax Gone Wrong?

By Emily @emily_ladau

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I’m sad to say I’ve encountered more than a few people who think that accessibility is nothing more than a perk or a privilege. While this is most definitely not that case, these so-called disability “privileges” present opportunities for some particularly immoral non-disabled people to take advantage of them. Perhaps the worst cases of this occur when someone goes so far as to pretend to be disabled.

This may seem outrageous, too horrible to be true, but it’s all too common. Consider, for instance, the scams at Disney World that made headline news last year. Wealthy families literally rented wheelchair users to act as pretend family members so they could skip long lines. And for those who prefer a do-it-yourself scamming method, I’ve read accounts of people who have rented or brought a wheelchair to a theme park and spent the day pretending to be disabled. While these are particularly extreme examples of people abusing disability privilege, I cannot stress enough how problematic it is if even one person does it.

As such, I was initially delighted to find out that the July 11th episode of the show Primetime: What Would You Do? (WWYD?) would be addressing the issue of faking a disability. WWYD? is a show in which actors are placed in controversial scenarios that occur in public while a hidden camera captures how people nearby respond. During the fake disability segment, titled “Handicap Hoax,” a non-disabled actress named Traci parks illegally in an accessible parking spot outside a Fairway grocery store. She then proceeds to use a motor scooter meant for patrons with physical disabilities. This fabricated situation definitely reflects reality in certain ways, but I noticed some major issues both with the way the segment is framed and with some of the interactions between Traci and the other shoppers.

Want to see more before I share my take? Check out the clip:

WWYD? was clearly trying to make an incredibly significant point, and yet once again, here is an example of media more successfully perpetuating harmful stereotypes instead of enacting real change. First, I can’t help but wonder why WWYD? used the term “handicapped” as the primary descriptor of disability. I’m aware this probably seems super nitpicky, but the word is outdated. Referring to disability as a handicap generally has a negative connotation. It’s the 21st century; just use the term “disabled.”

Even more important than my concern about language choice is the fact that WWYD? makes it seem that there’s only one right way to be disabled. Using a wheelchair but still having the ability to stand is by no means an accurate indicator of whether a person is faking it. Many people who use wheelchairs can stand for certain periods of time, and they do so in order to facilitate their independence.

My mom is a perfect example. She splits her time between walking and using a wheelchair for a number of reasons, including chronic fatigue and chronic pain. When she has to go somewhere that requires navigating long distances, such as the grocery store, she takes her power wheelchair. Sometimes, if my mom needs an item on a higher shelf, she’ll stand up for a moment to grab it rather than ask someone for assistance. Does this mean her disability disappears the moment she stands? Absolutely not. It means she’s doing what her body is physically capable of in order to help herself.

On WWYD?, the whole scheme is predicated on Traci standing up from the scooter to serve as evidence that she’s lying. This just isn’t a reasonable representation of what it means to have a disability, because there are no set rules for bodily functions. There’s no binary that claims you must sit if you’re disabled and stand if you’re not. In a strange way, it seems the producers do understand this, but they couldn’t seem to come up with another means for the actress to fake disability. As it happens, the shoppers that Traci interacts with figure out her ploy only because she asks for help while simultaneously standing up to help herself – obviously questionable behavior – or because she outright admits she doesn’t have a disability. Essentially, the whole concept of having a disability is portrayed in an awkward, inaccurate, and completely oversimplified manner.

My mom standing to put food in the oven, then sitting to take muffins out of a muffin tin.

My mom, baking her heart out. First, she stood up to put a fruit crisp in the oven. Later, after a long morning in the kitchen, she sat in her wheelchair to take blueberry muffins out of the muffin tin. Still the same person with the same disability, sitting or standing.

Another glaring problem within the segment is that it relies much too heavily on evoking pity to prove a point. When the show introduces a second actress, Alyse, who plays a visibly disabled character, they exploit society’s notion that you should feel bad for a person who has a disability. For instance, one shopper who tries to help Alyse is actually referred to by the host of the show as a “good Samaritan.” This idea of disabled people as pitiful and utterly helpless is stale, tired, and frankly quite insulting. I don’t need people to come help me because they think my life is awful or because they want to do their daily good deed; I just want people to be honest and considerate, as I should hope they would be to anyone else.

Due to the misrepresentation and the overarching theme of pity, I feel the WWYD? segment misses the mark. By the end, viewers may indeed learn to leave accessible spaces alone, but it seems more likely the message they’ll take away is not to use anything intended for someone with a disability only because we happen to be poor souls facing terrible circumstances. Thus, instead of defining right and wrong, the lesson is overshadowed by inciting a needlessly negative view of disability.

Ultimately, I respect WWYD? for always presenting tough situations and taking a critical look at how and why people respond to wrongful actions. The world surely needs more exposure to media that prompts people to examine their morals and beliefs. That being said, I hope producers of mainstream media will begin to examine their own beliefs and reconsider the ways in which they try to assist the disability community, so that their well-meaning efforts will contribute to positive change.

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