scorecardYoung adults living with hidden illnesses told Insider how they were shamed for receiving COVID-19 vaccines
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Young adults living with hidden illnesses told Insider how they were shamed for receiving COVID-19 vaccines

Joshua Zitser   

Young adults living with hidden illnesses told Insider how they were shamed for receiving COVID-19 vaccines
LifeScience3 min read
  • Young people with hidden disabilities told Insider that they had been shamed for getting a vaccine.
  • They faced intrusive questions and harassment for receiving a COVID-19 shot so soon.
  • Invisible illness groups are urging people to trust that those getting a shot are entitled to it.

After Joshua Wickham-Young posted on Twitter that he had been vaccinated against COVID-19, he received a torrent of intrusive messages from strangers.

"I had at least 15 different people messaging me to ask what medical condition I have to have received the vaccine," Wickham-Young, 30, told Insider.

"They didn't say hello or ask if they could ask me - they just immediately questioned whether I was sick enough to get it," he added.

Wickham-Young is living with a hidden disability that makes him more vulnerable to the coronavirus. He was offered a coronavirus vaccine earlier than other people his age because his condition places him in a priority group for the UK's vaccine rollout.

The first phase of the UK's vaccine rollout includes people with diabetes, lowered immunity, rheumatoid arthritis, or profound learning difficulties.

Despite his eligibility, Wickham-Young has faced skepticism and probing questions from people online.

"They made me feel like I shouldn't really have got it or that I'd lied to get it," Wickham-Young told Insider.

"I've had a lot of people saying that their mother in their 50s hasn't had her vaccine yet or their grandma hasn't had the call," he continued. "They want to know why I'm getting it before them."

Vaccine shaming

Like many other young people with invisible illnesses, Wickham-Young has experienced vaccine shaming.

Insider spoke with 11 people with hidden disabilities who all said they had faced intrusive questioning and harassment online and in-person after receiving a vaccine.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey, a 31-year-old journalist with an immune-system disorder, described feeling shamed at the vaccination clinic.

"It just felt like I was being judged, and it started pretty much straight away," she told Insider. "I was being asked about why I was getting the vaccine from volunteers, not even medical professionals, and other people I didn't owe an explanation to."

Charlton-Dailey said this line of questioning downplays the severity of invisible illnesses.

"You don't know what's going on with people," she told Insider. "They're called invisible illnesses for a reason."

"Just because I'm young doesn't mean I don't need the vaccine," she continued.

Vaccine shaming has become such a concern for some young people living with disabilities that they're reluctant to share their vaccination news with others.

'I don't really want to tell anyone about my vaccine'

Kiran Oyewole, 20, said that while he was excited to receive a vaccine soon, he'd decided not to post about it on social media or tell his peers.

"I don't really want to tell anyone about my vaccine because of the stigma there is around getting it before older people," he told Insider.

"To be in a situation where you can't say that you've been offered a vaccine because of the fear that people will just be asking completely unnecessary questions is obviously not a nice situation to be in," Oyewole added.

Oyewole said he believed that a lot of the skepticism came from inaccurate perceptions of who is vulnerable.

"Unless you fit the stereotype of being elderly or looking very vulnerable and frail, people are just going to keep asking you questions," Oyewole said.

'That is very ableist'

Bethany Dawson, a journalist and co-founder of the charity BVisible, said that prying into the reasons young people are being vaccinated is discriminatory.

"If random people on Twitter or in the vaccine clinic are questioning you as though they deserve to know what's happening - which may be very personal - that is very ableist," she told Insider.

"Disabled people don't have to give non-disabled people or anybody a reason why they are eligible for these resources," Dawson said.

'Trust that the most vulnerable are receiving the vaccine first'

Organizations for people living with hidden illnesses urge the public to trust that receiving vaccines is entitled to it.

"Too many people with invisible disabilities have experienced judgment or stigma from people who do not understand what it means to have an invisible illness," Molly Evans, a representative for Crohn's and Colitis UK, told Insider.

"Most people with Crohn's or colitis are diagnosed before they are 29 - meaning that there are many people currently eligible for the vaccine who appear young, fit, and perfectly healthy from the outside but have been shielding themselves for months due to having a weaker immune system."

The organization said it hoped that people would "trust that the most vulnerable are receiving the vaccine first" and that they would "be kind to those receiving the vaccine when offered."

A representative for Versus Arthritis also encouraged empathy for young people who are at a higher risk.

"We have a few people that haven't left their house at all in a year," they told Insider. "You can imagine what this vaccine feels like for them - it's essentially a lifeline."