As a culture, we have become more used to the idea that people can feel that their bodies do not match their own sense of identity. This is usually manifested in terms of gender and to some extent society has begun to come to terms with transgender people and transvestites, though there is still a long way to go. People are at least aware of them, even if not accepting, and those groups still experience a lot of enormous discrimination and abuse.
But I was startled to learn about another form of body-identity mismatch and that is with those able-bodied people who see themselves as disabled. Some of them act out on these feelings and behave like paralyzed people and even use wheelchairs. These ‘pretenders’, as they are referred to, are extremely closeted in that they use their wheelchairs only in places where they will not meet anyone they know. Some even feel the desire to get an amputation though it is unclear if anyone managed to get one by so injuring themselves that a doctor had no choice but to perform one.
Allen Rucker, who does need to use a wheelchair, was initially angry when he heard about the pretenders but came to realize that this is just another form of self-reinvention, different only in its details from others, though less common and poorly understood.
The medical literature on this wheelchair pretender form of self-invention is pretty thin, though there are whole books written on a parallel phenomenon called “factitious disorders.” A factitious disorder is when some needy soul feigns cancer to the point of starving themselves and shaving their head to look cancer stricken. Or a nurse — true story — who injects herself with live bacteria to make herself sick with life-threatening infections. There is also something in the mental-illness lexicon called “Body Integrity Identification Disorder,” or BIID. People with BIID want to severely alter their body image, like amputating their right leg or taking a drug that will make them permanently paralyzed. I decided to focus on the pure pretenders and sidestep the self-mutilators. That seemed a level of pathology better left to the experts.
As for pretenders, they are generally seen by clinicians as having a mental disorder. In a long article in the journal Sexuality and Disability, researcher and clinical psychophysiologist Dr. Richard Bruno reviews the history of pretenders, devotees and “wannabes” and describes two pretenders. Bruno concludes that pretending is, at root, a cry for love. He describes the origin of pretending “as the pairing in childhood of a disabled person with the expression of love or sympathy by normally cold and emotionally aloof parents.” Pretenders discover very early in life,” Bruno says, that “having a disability is the only way one can be loved.”
In his investigations, Rucker found that for some it is a psychosexual need and met up with someone named Cathy who told him about how she came to see herself as being paralyzed and what it was like when she started using her wheelchair.
One of the greatest surprises, she says, is that “nobody questions me about my wheelchair. It’s like they don’t even want to know.” Afraid she’d blow her cover and get caught, “what I really found out was that able-bodied people just don’t bother, don’t pay attention, and even avoid the topic all together.”
Back to the big question: really, why would you want to live your life in a wheelchair? Cathy ably sums it up, at least from her perspective:
“As for me, being in my wheelchair, it’s far deeper than sexual — I only feel ‘complete’ or ‘right’ when I’m in my chair. It’s completely psychological; when I’m in my wheelchair, I am more self-confident, more outgoing, more able to focus, and I feel much more attractive. I’m much more open to meeting new people, much more fun in public settings like parties or clubs. I’m simply happier.”
If we step back a bit we may perhaps come to accept that as long as they are not using the pretend disability for fraud or otherwise take advantage of the accommodations that society has created to make life easier for the disabled, there is no reason to frown on this behavior. Choosing to use a wheelchair becomes just another of the many life choices that we all make, though I admit that it does seem disquieting, probably because of its unfamiliarity.
When I looked around the web, like Rucker I did not find much good medical literature on this phenomenon but I did find a lot of fiction written about it, quite a bit of a sexual nature. For some, it does seem a bit like a fetish. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it is not used in ways that harm others.