At 24, Holly Ferrie has to cope with disruption to her life on a scale few of her age could recognise. A complex and as yet not fully diagnosed arthritis-related condition causes her almost constant pain in her legs and feet. On occasions, her legs are seized by agonising spasms.
Yet Ferrie fears she doesn’t seem disabled enough. People who don’t know her, she says, find it hard to comprehend the severity of a condition that afflicts someone so young and is not immediately obvious. “They either get very confused or think I’m faking, or say, ‘I hope the injury gets better soon’, things like that,” she said. “I’ve lost some friends over it. Pain is invisible and hard for people to understand.”
Such attitudes, Ferrie contends, have become more common and more vehement since the government began arguing for wholesale reductions in disability-related benefits on the basis that many were falsely claimed or received by people who were exaggerating their symptoms or whose health had improved.
Another cruel paradox is that she has never qualified for such benefits, even when housebound for six months when her condition first became severe in late 2009. She now has a well-paid job as a web developer for Surrey University in Guildford. “It’s really upsetting to become part of this group and then find yourself vilified,” she said. “The most annoying thing is that I pay quite a high rate of tax and people seem to think I’m a scrounger. People don’t seem to be getting the message that not all disabled people are out of work.
“I’ve found that as my health has improved and these government messages have been getting stronger, I’ve been getting more abuse. When you’re using a walking stick and clearly stumbling people are more likely to help you. But if you don’t look like you’re in pain people are more likely to attack you. I’m almost scared of looking healthier, because people won’t believe me.”
Ferrie says she is most likely to be insulted or abused on the street after a media article on supposed welfare abuse by the disabled. On a recent occasion, a group of students refused to share a taxi with her, she recounts. “After the next articles came out I tweeted, ‘I wonder how long it’s going to be this time before someone says or does something to me?’”
It took five days. On another occasion, she was rushing for a bus about to depart from a bus garage when her way was blocked by a staff member standing in the vehicle’s doorway. “I said to her, ‘Excuse me, can I get on the bus please?’. She looked down at my stick, looked up at my face and said, ‘No. You should have walked faster.’”
Ferrie explained why she could not move more quickly, and met a response dripping with more scepticism: “Oh, really?”
“In the end I had to push past her,” Ferrie said. “I burst into tears on the bus. I couldn’t believe someone would say that to me.” Mark Mayer, 38, from Dorking in Surrey, says he faces a similar problem in that his cerebral palsy is not always immediately obvious. In recent months he has found himself increasingly challenged when using disabled parking spaces or other facilities.
“I’ve had people say, ‘You don’t look disabled’. I’ve had people asking to look at my blue badge to make sure it’s mine. I know people who won’t park in a disabled bay anymore because they don’t look disabled. It’s more noticeable now. Every time it happens I ask myself if I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but not so long ago I don’t think I had to deal with this stuff.”