Today I wanted to talk a little about about ableism. Specifically, the type of ableism involved in making people prove their conditions or “outing" them as fakers, malingerers, and hypochondriacs.
As you may have heard there is a new series out of Netflix called Afflicted. Afflicted looks at the lives of six chronically ill people with different conditions. It was framed to participants as a documentary to be made with a “compassionate lens” to help raise awareness.
The general consensus, including that of the participants, is that it grossly misrepresented everyone involved and instead made them out to be at best mentally ill, and at worst, fakers and attention seekers, even where evidence to the contrary exists.
I’m not surprised.
You can read their joint account (and individual in-depth stories) here.
There seems to be a special kind of vicious joy people take in this kind of narrative, so much so that Afflicted, as insulting as is it, seems like just another day in the life of chronically ill person.
As frustrating as it is, I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss why I think this happens so often.
There’s obviously the merit aspect.
If people can be outed as fakers, or shown to be “enjoying” special attention due to their conditions, then it immediately places the viewer as morally superior to the person they’re watching.
They can rest easy that they’d never do such a despicable, desperate thing, and are so much better than that.
Basically, it makes them feel good about themselves.
This is a fairly common thing; I’ve definitely been lured in by it before. Politicians, and the media in general, use this type of scapegoating so much that it's internalised. Internalised ableism doesn’t immediately go away just because you get sick.
It takes some pretty gruelling retraining to stop once you get into the habit of it.
Even now I have to check myself on occasion.
Netflix is quite clearly prancing about merrily in the land of “it’s all in your head”, and frankly needs to a. do better, and b. understand that mental illness is still illness, anyway.
Of course, there’s some leeway given to people who are seen as “fighting their disease”. They’re more acceptable because they’re proving themselves, despite their circumstances.
This is otherwise known as inspiration porn. Look what humans can achieve if they just PUT THEIR MIND TO IT!
There’s a brilliant video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard where she says people seem to think, “if you’re not an inspiration, then why are you here?” and there’s a real sense sometimes that you have to do amazing things just to be considered worthwhile as a disabled person.
Either be Inspirational or go away, because you’re making the place look untidy.
It’s a lot harder to do that with chronic or invisible illnesses because, by nature, people can’t see obvious signs. People want a definitive outcome, and you don’t get that with the chronically ill, because it’s always there.
Of course, even in more cut and dry situations this kind of outlook isn’t necessarily helpful to the patient, and often leads to people feeling they can’t show their struggles because others think they’re “giving up”.
(If that’s you, by the way, you’re allowed emotions. Especially in horrible situations. It’s not giving up, it’s accepting that things are difficult, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.)
But, I think the main reason people end up participating in this kind of discourse is actually fear.
Illness and disability are terrifying to most people. You can go from a healthy, active, accepted part of society to losing your autonomy in the blink of an eye.
When it really comes down to it, I think people want to believe things like this aren’t real, because they’re frightened it’ll happen to them.
If they pretend it’s based on merit, or that certain illnesses are all in the mind, they’ll have some level of control, and they can prevent them.
In a sense they’re right. It is terrifying. But a major part of what makes it terrifying is knowing that, while you’re struggling with something new and frightening and difficult to manage, society is going to judge you. And because society judges you it becomes more difficult to get the medical care and support you need. And when you get upset about it they’ll judge you some more.
Even when you’ve found things that work for you, and adjust to a new (and potentially no less full) life, that judgement stays.
What all these people are doing is closing their eyes, sticking their fingers in their ears and singing as loud as they can so the Bad Things can’t get them.
If I can’t see it, it’s not there, and even if I can then it’s not real anyway, so I’m still safe.
Unfortunately, this is not how the Bad Things work.
Illness or disability does not care how nice you are, or how often you give to charity, or if you’ve ever needed benefits before. It doesn’t care if you eat kale, or go to the gym, or have never been ill in your life. And that’s a bit scary.
But it would be a lot less so if people stopped acting so frightened and actually tried to support those who have to deal with it.
So if everyone could take their fingers out of their ears and listen, I’d really appreciate it.
I’m pretty sure the people on Afflicted would too.
Finally, full disclosure, I haven’t seen Afflicted, and it’s highly unlikely I’ll watch it. I know a lot of people would say that this weakens my argument, but given that this kind of treatment is par for the course, there seems little point me using precious energy to verify what the vast majority of the disabled and chronically ill community have already told me.
I believe them, you see.