The Trope of Faking It

Comments: 9



Recently, there has been a lot of talk about service dogs – particularly, fake service dogs. Some of you may have seen the articles and news reports, awful stories of people who pretend to be disabled in order to take their dogs into stores and restaurants. If the media is right, it’s practically an epidemic.

With that said, I guess it’s not surprising that I get accused of “faking” my disability pretty often. I’ve been yelled at my strangers, I’ve had business owners question my need for a guide dog, I’ve been told over and over again that I “don’t look blind.” This happened even before I got a guide dog. People saw me with my cane and because I didn’t seem disabled by their standards, it was assumed that I must be lying, trying to cheat the system in order to get perks.

It’s not just me these accusations fall upon. I’ve seen it happen to others. I’ve heard people comment on how someone parked in a handicapped spot was “an awful person” because “they can clearly walk.” But never did those people consider the unseen – things that might cause pain or difficulty walking or other reasons a closer parking spot would be needed. I know people who need handicapped parking and regularly receive hateful notes on their car for using it. Then there are people who gossip to me about so-and-so who isn’t really disabled like I am, and don’t I just hate when people take advantage of the system like that?

I’ve been baffled by this for most of my life. Why would anyone fake a disability for a few small perks? And why would it be such a threat to abled people, who always seem so outraged by it? More outraged, sometimes, than actual disabled people.

I have some answers to both questions, but they’re just guesses, really. I can’t really imagine either side. I can’t imagine faking a disability just for the small benefits liking parking closer or taking a dog to restaurants, and I can’t imagine being so angry about it, either. I’m not angry about people getting those benefits. The only thing I’m angry about is how it indirectly affects me: more people assuming I’m faking my real disability.

But I’m getting off topic.

The notion of people faking disabilities is not at all new or novel. In fact, it’s been a trope in fiction for a while. In TV, movies, books, etc, it’s not at all uncommon to come across a villain who pretends to have a disability for one reason or another. And, like many, many disability tropes, it’s a harmful one.

I see the “fake disability” trope as potentially harmful. It can bring suspicion on people with real disabilities. If so many pieces of fiction present a world in which people faking disabilities is common, then why wouldn’t consumers of that fiction start to suspect this behavior in reality? Especially when those same pieces of fiction only portray the extreme versions of real disabilities (complete blindness vs. legal blindness, etc).

Obviously not everyone who consumes fiction assumes these realities. But when these stereotypes are portrayed so often, it’s hard for me to believe that it doesn’t have some impact.

I understand that faking disabilities isn’t just a fictional thing – it does happen in reality. But does it happen as often as fiction portrays? Or as often as the news portrays? I don’t know, but I like to think not. And I’d rather the attention be on people with real disabilities than people faking them.

But what about you? How do you feel about the “fake disability” narrative? Do you think it’s harmful? Do you think it’s as common in reality as the media portrays it to be? I’d really like your thoughts because this is an issue that i’ms still struggling with. So let’s discuss!

About Author

Kody Keplinger

Kody Keplinger is the author of several books for teens: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Shut Out, A Midsummer's Nightmare, Lying Out Loud, and the upcoming Run, as well as a middle grade novel, The Swift Boys & Me,. Currently, Kody lives in New York City with her guide dog, a very upbeat German Shepherd named Corey. When she isn't writing, Kody teaches writing workshops and spends a lot of time eating Thai food and marathoning Joss Whedon's TV shows.



  1. A friend of mine is disabled, and she needs a wheelchair to get around. When she went to Disney World last week, she was told that she couldn’t get to the front of lines, because so many rich families have started hiring disabled people, or putting their able bodied children in wheelchairs, in order to cut lines. That’s the worst example I’ve heard of, but I think that’s pretty bad..

  2. I read the piece in the New York Times where Kody was also featured, talking about this issue in light of building rules about service dogs. As someone with a hidden disability (Asperger’s/autism), I have often not asked for the help I need out of fear of someone accusing me of faking a disability. In several cases, I’ve been injured as a result of not requesting assistance and struggling to do it all by myself.

  3. I find that when the media picks up on a story of “faking it,” it practically goes viral, turning it into fodder for an unfair stereotype against honest disabled people. I have a very visible disability and use a power wheelchair, so I’ve not experienced being told I’m faking it. But it’s a difficult subject, because sometimes I even find myself wondering about people who appear nondisabled, and have to quickly stop myself and remind myself of thinks like “hey, maybe they have an invisible disability and need the elevator!”

  4. I think this is one of those tropes that should be used with extreme caution if at all, exactly because it’s so easy for faking a disability to take over the conversation. It’s an obvious target for outrage (people love being outraged!) and it’s morally simple, and that’s just a lot easier than having a serious conversation about representations of disability in media. So yeah, I’d be pretty comfortable retiring this as a representational trope for a couple of years.

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  6. I hate hate hate when abled people want to play doctor and discrimination against us. I have cerebral palsy from brain damage its called bilateral Schizencephaly and it rare as hell so people don’t know what I have and are very ignorant. I want to scream when they ask me if I am mad so many people are “playing the system”.when. I reply with what about me they say but not you you need it I am talking about the others. What others? Okay I have know this one person who could work but just gave up after she got laid off and that did make me sad but so what? When I was able to get my braces removed I had people who told me that they were so happy I was cured. I will never be cured my problems are neurological disorders. I have been stared down because I was at the ssi office “while I was to young to be disabled” then he saw my limp and told me to carry on without an apology. I can walk out my front door without be stared at or some asking me what is wrong with me but god forbid I ask for help ever becuse them I am “playing it up” if I would just “try harder” or “be the surviver not the victim”of my disability I would be self sufficient of course.

  7. I didn’t know that faking a disability is a trope in fiction, or common in any way. When it actually happens (which I’m sure is less than 1% of all cases), I’m willing to bet that the faker has a mental disorder, so I’d let it slide.

    • That’s another wrinkle to the ‘faking’ that’s often not recognized. I’ve encountered this in two subcultures that tend to fake disabilities – the ABDL subculture and people with BIID. In both cases, their ‘faking’ comes from a deep psychological need that is itself disabling – and very similar in many ways to the experience of gender dysphoria, especially for BIID. To me, they’re very much disabled people as well, just with a different kind of disability than what they appear to have.
      I have seen people with the disabilities these people desire sometimes get angry at these people, especially with ABDLs versus people with incontinence, but to me it seems kind of pointless.

  8. Stumbled on this a week after plotting a story and realising 1) a character is doing this, and 2) it is really going to get up the other character’s noses, particularly the disabled protagonist – cue protagonist rant on the damage it does by legitimising the concept of a ‘non-genuine disability’, and the ableism of society in thinking it is qualified to judge our disabilities, I have her end up likening it to putting on blackface to play a non-white role. It’s certainly a dangerous trope, but potentially one we can turn around to educate people and make them look at their own attitudes to disability.

    There’s an interesting parallel here with non-disabled actors ‘cripping-up’ to play disabled roles, yet that’s considered socially acceptable….