Disabled and Disbelieved: People with invisible illnesses still aren’t taken seriously

Daily Mail’s article targeting invisible illnesses reinforces harmful biases

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hands of someone in a hospital gown holding a medical hair net
Inclusion doesn’t start with telling people they’re lying. PHOTO: Alexander Grey / Unsplash

By: Olivia Visser, Opinions Editor

Content warning: ableism, online bullying

Disabled people still experience considerable social stigma in modern society. Although online awareness is on the rise, communities still face backlash by able-bodied people who are uncomfortable with the way some people express themselves. Online communities dedicated to calling out “illness fakers,” and defamatory news articles discourage invisibly disabled people from seeking like-minded support.

Recently, the Daily Mail published an article titled “Addicted to being sad: Teenage girls with invisible illnesses — known as ‘Spoonies’ — post TikToks of themselves crying or in hospital to generate thousands of likes.” If the article’s headline didn’t raise enough red flags for you, its content is just as disturbing. Ignoring the fact that the piece takes much of its content from an equally harmful Common Sense article, it upholds a fallacious rhetoric about disability. To older generations who might not understand Gen Z and millennial social media culture, this piece of writing anchors ignorant readers in their already troubling beliefs. The idea that young people are faking their identity for attention is a narrative that harms marginalized communities in many ways, from queer and trans people, to disabled people. For disabled readers, the message is clear: shut up and suffer in silence because your pain “isn’t real.”

The term “spoonies” refers to spoon theory — a concept created by invisibly disabled activist Christine Miserandino. For no particular reason besides being in a café at the time, she picked spoons to illustrate to a friend what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. To her, everyone starts their day with a set number of spoons, which represents their ability to expend energy. Disabled people often start with fewer spoons, so they have to limit or adjust their activities in order to prevent exhaustion and burnout. The simple yet effective analogy spoke to many people online, who dub themselves “spoonies” as a way to identify with other disabled people.

Emma James, Daily Mail senior news reporter, asserts the spoonie community “encourages [people] to lie to doctors in order to get the diagnosis that they want.” However, she never gives any examples of someone encouraging others to lie to doctors about their symptoms.

In any community, there will be some who lie or are misguided, but such a small fraction of spoonies actually fit that bill. Why should an entire community suffer from stigmatization because of a few outliers? I’d be inclined to say almost everyone who complains to doctors about disabling physical symptoms has some sort of undiagnosed medical illness. Perhaps James never considered that people are not seeking diagnoses they want to have, but answers to very real and life-altering symptoms they experience.

It’s easier to judge disabled people when you’ve never had to deal with regular stigmatization from doctors, friends, and now strangers online. A subreddit dedicated to calling out “illness fakers” has over 125,000 followers. Behaviour like this, which targets the infinitely small percentage of “fakers,” vilifies everyone sharing their disabled experience online. It inevitably ends up targeting people who are actually disabled in the process. One autistic TikToker, Raven DeRose, shared her experience with being called a faker by redditors for . . . wait for it . . . dancing for the camera. It’s ridiculous.

The Daily Mail article follows shortly after J.K. Rowling released her new novel, The Ink Black Heart, which has received backlash for targeting trans and disabled communities. Critics suggest her writing is driven by disdain for the massive criticism she regularly receives after sharing her transphobic beliefs on Twitter. Now, she’s targeting the disabled community, which is increasingly receiving its share of online cruelty and discrimination.

Articles that call disabled people “addicted to being sad” grossly underestimate the isolation that comes with physical or mental illness, and the genuine comfort social media can bring. Online communities can offer meaningful support for those who find themselves unable to socialize in-person, especially during COVID-19. Able-bodied people don’t need to fully understand this, but they do need to respect it.

Nobody has the right to decide whether someone is faking their illness, and it’s none of their business anyways. The fact that this even needs to be said should spark concern. Considering 22% of Canadians over 15 have a disability, we must let go of our mindset that tells us disabled people are a rarity — we’re not. Disability sits at the intersections of all identities and communities. The spoonie community doesn’t represent anything toxic, besides reflecting back a society that’s guilty of excluding and misunderstanding those with chronic illnesses.