Wheelchair, service animal fakers: Vacationers, cease faking disabilities

On a flight from Charlotte to Denver, Stephen Caron met a man who he believes is feigning disability.

“He got in first because he was in a wheelchair,” recalls Caron, a retired customer sales manager from Jacksonville, Florida. “When we landed, he got up and got off the plane.”

The man then made his way to the Denver baggage claim area, a long walk from the gate, unassisted. Caron says he’s seen it many times.

Flight crew members have a name for this type of fake disability on an airplane. It is called a “miracle flight”.

From fake service animals to bogus injuries, the travel industry is full of counterfeiters. There’s a reason for that. Tour operators, and airlines in particular, often make the trip so uncomfortable that passengers feel entitled not to be truthful. But it is time to contain the false disability problem as it hurts the people who live with disabilities every day.

Not all disabilities are obvious

Before cracking down on “miracle” flights or pets posed as emotional support animals, we should acknowledge something that may not be obvious. Disabilities are not always clearly visible.

Cindy Huner and her husband, for example, travel with sticks. She has fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disorder, and her husband has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an immune-mediated disease.

“We are always aware of other people and their concerns, and we try hard not to take advantage of them,” says Huner, a retired travel agent in Littleton, Colorado. “We pay extra for the early boarding group on our flights, although we can get on without them first because if we can stand in line we will. But people think we are lying when they see us.”

Huner makes a valid point about disabilities: you can’t always tell when you look at someone whether they’re faking it.

Not that it matters.

“According to federal law, hotel employees are not allowed to request proof of a person’s disability,” says hotel expert Glenn Haussman, founder and presenter of the podcasts “No Vacancy News”. “Unfortunately, it has opened the door to dishonest people who want to abuse government policies. And it has put people in the travel business in a difficult position.”

Fake disabilities when traveling have gone too far

Think what happened to etiquette expert Jodi RR Smith on a recent flight from Boston to Miami. Before boarding, she watched a long line of passengers in wheelchairs boarding ahead of the first group.

“You can imagine my utter shock when we landed in Florida and all these priority wheelchair users showed up like little jack-in-the-boxes and jumped off the plane as quickly as possible,” she says.

You don’t have to be an etiquette expert to know that faking a disability is wrong.

Counterfeit service animals became such a problem that the Department of Transportation revised its rules for flying animals with emotional support. The government no longer sees them as service animals, legally required to fly with commercial airline passengers.

“Unfortunately, the title” Animal for Emotional Support “loses the respect it deserves because it is abused by people who simply want to travel for free with their pets on board,” says Christine Benninger, President of Guide Dogs for the Blind. a non-profit organization.

The wrong disability problem can be worse than you think

How far will travelers go? Probably further than you think.

“We find that every single traveler who travels with a pet calls it a service animal,” says Brian Zaugg, who runs two Seattle hotels. “Still, the number of animals I’ve seen in the last over two decades that apparently appeared to be service animals is zero.”

In hotels it is also known that counterfeiters request handicapped accessible rooms as there is more space to stretch out.

On an American Airlines flight, a passenger allegedly faked illness in order to be upgraded to first class. Instead of complying, the pilot made an emergency landing. The police escorted the passenger from the flight.

Forging a disability while traveling is “a particularly sensitive issue”.

“This is a challenging situation for companies and a particularly sensitive issue that should be approached very carefully,” said Vassilis Dalakas, professor of marketing at Cal State University in San Marcos. “I think companies would rather be wrong if they let a fake disability pass through than if they question a legitimate one.”

Most of the critics focus on the forger, but not the reason for the forgery. But to stop the shenanigans, we have to go there. For example, why was the American Airlines passenger so desperate for a better seat?

Maybe it’s because the regional jet had eensy-weensy, claustrophobic seats. And if the airline took out a few rows of seats to give everyone a little air, that would fix the problem.

Enough is enough: Is it time for airline seat minimum standards?

The fake service animal problem is more complicated. Passengers want to travel with their beloved pets because they offer unconditional love. Humans are tied to their animal companions. According to the American Pet Products Association, pet care spending hit a record $ 72 billion in 2018, up 4% year over year. Still, no animal has asked to fly on an airplane or stay in a hotel.

There is a word for this: anthropomorphization – ascribing human qualities to something that is not human. If we can’t do anything about our collective anthropomorphization, this belief that animals are our babies and must travel with us everywhere, we will face even more false disabilities later on.

Ultimately, people with false disabilities hurt people with real disabilities the most. They are taking away their handicapped accessible rooms and wheelchairs, and also making it difficult to bring their real service animals. The sooner we fix false disabilities while traveling, the better.

How to NOT tell someone if someone has a disability

By asking her. Passengers are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers based on their disability. In general, tour operators do not require proof of disability before providing wheelchairs or special accommodation.

By inspecting your “service” animal. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require service animals to wear a harness, ID card, or vest. You can’t tell from a service dog. (Note: Emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals are not considered service animals under the ADA.)

By looking at them. Many disabilities are not recognizable. This can lead to disbelief about the disease that is hurting the person with a disability, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association, a nonprofit organization. Don’t assume that the seemingly sane person using a disabled space doesn’t belong there.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US TODAY.

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