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Bullying and Arthritis: We Need to Talk about It

By Eileen Davidson, Arthritis Patient Advisory Board member

You wouldn’t bully someone for having cancer, so why bully someone about any illness?

Living with an invisible disease like arthritis can be hard, regardless of age. People tend to think arthritis only impacts older people. So it’s common to hear hurtful remarks from individuals who haven’t experienced the pain and fatigue firsthand.

Sometimes remarks stem from ignorance. Other times, they are meant to hurt. Arthritis isn’t funny, it’s life-changing and serious.

As students head back to school and employees return to work this fall, we’re drawing attention to some of the common forms of bullying experienced by people living with arthritis at all ages.

Workplace Bullying

Insults at work are more common than you may think for people with arthritis. Ruth, 33, has rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and recalls starting a new job as a salon receptionist after her diagnosis. RA had already diminished her career as an esthetician, so she tried something that would be easier on her joints. It wasn’t long until she faced criticism from colleagues.

“I was struggling with one task that used my hands a lot, but I could do everything else fine. One coworker called me useless because I couldn’t wash clients’ hair,” she said.

Then Ruth was not invited to the staff Christmas party even though she worked the same day.

“I felt so unwelcome and horrible about myself.”

Clothing Choices or Assistive Devices

Arthritis can cause a lot of discomfort when it comes to wearing shoes or clothing. Many popular styles look great, but can aggravate joints. Natasha was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis at age 13, she remembers high school peers making hurtful comments about her fashion choices.

“People used to say I was wearing fish shoes,” she said. “They were just comfortable sneakers.”

Steff, who is 25 and lives with ankylosing spondylitis, recalls being approached a few times about her baby pink walker.

“I was at the mall when a man came up to me and asked if the walker was mine, and why I had it. He then said, ‘I thought you were just holding it for your grandma.’”

Steff also had an incident on public transit where a bus driver commented on her mobility. “He said, ‘No more running around huh?’ And ‘No more jumping on the bed!’ I believe he would not have said that to me if I was older.”

Eileen Davidson was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 29. Find out how arthritis has changed her life.

Misunderstood by People in Positions of Authority

Natasha also recalls a time when teachers were less than supportive of her illness. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis affected her fingers, wrists, feet, and limited her ability to write and walk. Writing notes, drawing diagrams, and documenting her work for math and science problems became a challenge. There were several instances when she was discouraged from pursuing science and math courses by teachers and peers.

“They thought my inability to draw and write would prevent me from excelling in certain subjects,” she said.

Bullied for Physical Appearance

Arthritis is a debilitating disease that sometimes requires medications that can cause weight gain. It can also cause joint deformities, which are visible and make exercise difficult.

Drama Queens for Talking about Pain

“It’s just arthritis, isn’t that only joint pain? Everyone has aches and pains. My grandmother has arthritis and can still do that.”

When pain is invisible or stigmatized, others can have a hard time understanding and relating to what people with arthritis are experiencing. Not everyone has empathy. For this reason, many do not feel comfortable disclosing their diagnosis to others.

Individuals with arthritis are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles. These too come with stigmas and misconceptions that are hard for some to understand. Words can have a lasting effect on someone’s emotional well-being. Bullying makes depression and anxiety worse. People with arthritis shouldn’t have to suffer in silence.

Men and Chronic Pain

Men are commonly told not to discuss their pain. People say “man up” and make other judgmental comments. But arthritis pain is very real and debilitating, regardless of gender or age. The stigma that men need to push through the pain can lead to irreversible joint damage and further complications down the road. Talking about pain helps people to take care of themselves and seek medical care when needed.

Shamed for Using Medications or Seeking Medical Care

Many forms of arthritis require medication to treat symptoms and prevent serious complications. While a proper diet benefits most forms of arthritis, it is not a cure. Everyone is different and individuals living with arthritis need to decide how they wish to have their disease treated. No one should be shamed for seeking medical advice or treatment.

Being Left Out

A less obvious form of bullying is being excluded from social events because of arthritis. While people living with arthritis may need to cancel plans due to unpredicted flares, being invited is still very important. No one wants to feel excluded or forgotten about because of an illness.

Questioned Aggressively for an Invisible Disability

Many living with an invisible disease have been questioned about or accused of faking it. This can happen when using a disabled parking spot, an elevator or sitting in designated seats on public transit. Looks can be deceiving. People who appear young and healthy, can still be dealing with a chronic illness or injury.

Hurtful Words Add to the Pain

Arthritis hurts enough. Unkind words can worsen pain.

Bullying creates insecurities and has a lasting effect on a person’s overall well-being. Arthritis can happen to anyone and people with arthritis do not deserve to be criticized for their disease.

I myself was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 29. I recall a time when someone used my arthritis as a joke. Shortly after my diagnosis, I was outside a concert venue waiting in line to get in. Someone I knew thought it would be funny to yell, “Let the cripple girl through!” It made me feel really small, embarrassed and unwelcome with all those eyes on me. I’ve had a hard time going to concerts since, something I used to love to do.

Bullying and Arthritis Matters

No one wants to feel alone, excluded, or rejected for something they have no control over. Bullying has a significant impact on a victim’s life.

Spread kindness and compassion. You never know what someone is going through. How would you feel if you were diagnosed with a disease and then made fun of or judged because of it?

If you’re living with arthritis, try and find the courage to speak up to end the stigma and misconceptions.

If you are being bullied, there is help available. BullyingCanada is a full, 24/7 support service. Contact them anytime for help by phone, text, online chat, or email.

Eileen Davidson is a member of Arthritis Research Canada’s Arthritis Patient Advisory Board. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 29. Since then, she has become an advocate for arthritis patients and an active participant in arthritis research. To learn more about Eileen, please click here.

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