Meet the pretenders

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.


  1. astrosmash says

    Still problematic… I don’t doubt the authenticity of her disability or the need to do what she does…The problem is in the (necessary) deception tacit in this behaviour… You are essentially, through a lie of ommission, decieving people. Idoubt very seriously that the chair would have the same comforting effect for her if she were to include a disclaimer when introducing herself to new [people… Oh, BTW I don’t actually NEED this for physical reasons..On one hand, it really IS no one’s business, but there are also social and cultural and infrastructural ‘provisions’ we provide that one could use unfairly. Kinda like abled folks who get hold of the handicapped tag to hang on the rearview mirror so they can park in handicapped parking spaces

  2. astrosmash says

    OTOH again, it says just as much about the misguided, patronizing position of pity we show to the disabled.

  3. says

    Then there is justified fear. My diabetic mother suffered a crippling stroke, then amputation. She killed herself.

    I’ve got diabetes. The last thing I want to undergo is an amputation.

  4. hyphenman says


    I have to think much more about this, but my first question has to be, how many pretenders are we talking about?


  5. Mano Singham says


    I don’t think anyone knows the number. People in this group must live deeply closeted lives.

  6. hyphenman says


    I agree, and that is why I think the number may be relatively (compared to the general population) miniscule and the story, while about real people with real problems, intended more as click-bait than a serious examination of an issue the population in general needs to attention pay.

    I just see too many people who already incorrectly feel that all those damn parking spaces for handicapped drivers are another liberal plot will become further incensed that fake handicapped people working Obama’s mental health system are stealing more parking spaces from their gas guzzling pickups. I can just hear Rush Limbaugh ranting about this in in 4… 3… 2…


  7. smrnda says

    I read a bit about the amputation deal, but it was mostly connected with sexuality.

    I have often thought it would be a useful exercise for a non-disabled person to try to navigate using a wheelchair, if only so they would think about accessibility issues. This is, of course, something totally different. More research would definitely help.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    there is no reason to frown on this behavior.

    Hmmm. If they are spending most of their time in a wheelchair, they probably are not getting as much exercise as they should, and thus risking health problems in the future. Since we all share the burden of health care costs (or we should, in a decent society) they would be placing needless burdens on their neighbors.
    Also, if you use a fake disability to get love and acceptance, wouldn’t you risk feeling that any love you did get was an undeserved love?

  9. Charles Sullivan says

    I wonder if it would be “just another form of reinvention” if, say, a white American pretended to be someone from India. Perhaps the American would speak English with an Indian accent, do the head bobble, wear traditional clothing, and so forth.

    Would this be any different, ethically speaking, from pretending to be disabled?

  10. lanir says

    Frankly this sounds like pretty small potatoes. It sounds like from the comments a lot of people are concerned about somehow paying for this. I doubt there’s much paying going on and it feels to me like you can’t even really get into that discussion without dismissing it as a psychological condition.

    I’ve seen a lot of people do very unusual things for love, companionship and the pursuit of happiness. Along the way my own prejudices have been triggered on numerous occasions and I have consistently found those prejudices to be small-minded, petty, largely based on nonsense and generally just unworthy of me or the people who unknowingly triggered them. Basically if nobody’s being harmed then do whatever makes you happy.

  11. Shatterface says

    So what’s the difference between this and wearing blackface?

    The internet is full of people insisting that they’re cats, vampires or unicorns. We indulge them because we regard it as harmless role play and hell, cats don’t object, and vampires and unicorns don’t exist. When you are appropriating the identity of genuinely disadvantaged groups you are crossing a line.

    As an aspie I couldn’t give a shit if people like to cosplay ‘autistic’ as part of their sex lives; but if they’re pretending to be autistic in public they are appropriating my identity and they can fuck right off.

    It’s hard enough demanding reasonable adjustments from our employers as it is without those without disabilities claiming our rights for themselves.

    Cue: accusations of trans-autistic exclusionary neurodiversity.

  12. Anton Mates says

    So what’s the difference between this and wearing blackface?

    To me, the difference is that blackface isn’t convincing. (And is not meant to be). I find blackface offensive because it’s appropriation of a racial identity without actually committing to it, even temporarily; it’s saying, “I’m clearly not black and I’m choosing to speak as a black person anyway, because it’s funny.”

    If white people were using cosmetic surgery and high-quality makeup to convincingly appear to be black, I wouldn’t much care, personally. In fact, I’d probably recommend it as a social awareness tool. (And mixed-race people have been going the other way for centuries, using whitening cosmetic agents and asserting themselves as pure white; I wish there weren’t social pressures encouraging them to do that, but I’m not going to blame them for it.)

    YMMV, of course. I’m mixed myself but fairly privileged on most axes, so I can afford not to care what people want to appropriate from me. Plenty of black (and disabled, and autistic) people have much stronger reasons to guard their identity.

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