Fear of the Disability Con: Perceptions of Fraud and Special Rights Discourse

By Dorfman, Doron | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Fear of the Disability Con: Perceptions of Fraud and Special Rights Discourse


Dorfman, Doron, Law & Society Review


Introduction

George Takei is an American actor, director, human rights activist, and social media persona. He is also known for his sense of humor and the amusing internet memes he posts. One joke, though, created quite a stir, online and off. On August 2, 2014, Takei posted a meme on his Facebook and Twitter accounts depicting a woman in a liquor store standing up in a wheelchair while reaching for a bottle from the top shelf (Figure 1). The caption read, "There has been a miracle in the alcohol aisle." The meme was then shared tens of thousands of times. In response, social media users offered comments like "Hope insurance company sees it!" illustrating how the meme was viewed as catching someone perpetrating a con. Remarks suggested this was not an isolated incident, and the photo offered verification of a known common phenomenon, how "much fraud there is today" (Harris 2014).

Takei's posts outraged many people with disabilities and advocates worldwide. They were enraged about the validation of a socio-cultural-legal phenomenon they experience every day- public suspicion of the "disability con,"1 that is, the cultural anxiety that individuals fake disabilities to take advantage of rights, accommodations, or benefits. Takei's post demonstrates the limited success of the American disability rights movement and US legislation in changing perceptions around disability (Krieger 2003b: 256; Waterstone 2015: 614). Takei fails to understand disability as fluid rather than dichotomous (Barnartt 2010: 2). Therefore, the idea underlying the meme-that a person using a wheelchair cannot stand up even for a second-is simply a misconception. Some physically disabled people who use wheelchairs can get up and walk short distances; some might only use wheelchairs in certain circumstances and for shorter times to avoid pain. Similarly, people living with chronic pain or mental illness might have days they can move around and be active and others they cannot get out of bed. As some tried to explain to Takei, getting up or moving your legs does not make a wheelchair user "a faker" (Egan 2014).

This Article presents a new framework for analyzing the development and implementation of disability law and policy: the prism of the fear of the disability con-popular perceptions of fraud and fakery. Although news stories and memes about falsely claiming disability rights abound, what the public makes of these stories or how disabled people experience this suspicion is something not integrated into systematic analysis of law in everyday life. Yet these attitudes could well shape how people experience their rights, how they are willing to exercise them, and how the law itself is being shaped to respond to this suspicion. The widely documented civil rights approach the law in the United States has taken depends on inclusion in everyday life, specifically in sites that have proven resistant to enforcement (Merry 1995: 14). Inclusion depends not only on the signs, symbols, and policies of inclusion but also on how laypeople experience rights and their legal consciousness (Ewick and Silbey 1998: 22; Nielsen 2000: 1057). This is specifically true in the disability law context, as its regulations and policies primarily depend on private enforcement via society's members, specifically in everyday situations wherein formal law is absent (Marusek 2012: 138-39; Bagenstos 2009: 9). Therefore, this study integrates a national survey with stories from people with disabilities about when they have been suspected of fraud. Studies of inclusion concerning racial groups along with sexual orientation and gender identity have found that contact makes a difference to acceptance (Pettigrew and Troop 2011: 16-20; Harris 2019: 912). In addition to giving a rich description of the nature and scope of the disability con stereotype, this exploratory study finds, perhaps paradoxically, that though it is hard to discern who is most likely to suspect others of fraud, contact or even experiencing a disability does not seem to decrease the likelihood of suspecting fraud and fakery. …

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