Travelers need to stop faking disabilities. It’s hurting people who DO have them

On a flight from Charlotte to Denver, Stephen Caron met a man he thinks was faking a disability.

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

The man then made a beeline to the baggage claim in Denver, a lengthy walk from the gate, unassisted. Caron says he’s seen it happen many times.

Airline crew members have a name for that kind of fake disability on a plane. It’s called a “miracle” flight.

From bogus service animals to feigned injuries, the travel industry is filled with fakers. There’s a reason for it. Travel companies, and particularly airlines, often make the trip so uncomfortable that passengers feel justified in being untruthful. But it’s time to rein in the fake disability problem as it hurts the people who do live with disabilities every day.

Not all disabilities are obvious

Before we crack down on “miracle” flights or pets being passed off as emotional support animals, let’s acknowledge something that may not be obvious. Disabilities aren’t always clearly visible.

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

“We are always aware of other people and their concerns and try very hard not to take advantage,” says Huner, a retired travel agent from Littleton, Colorado. “We pay extra for the early boarding group on our flights even though we can board first without it 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 by looking at someone if they’re faking it.

Not that it would matter. 

“According to federal law, hotel staff are not allowed to ask for proof of a person’s disability,” says hotel expert Glenn Haussman, founder and host of the “No Vacancy News” podcasts. “Unfortunately, it’s opened the door to dishonest people looking to abuse the government policy.  And it’s put people in the travel business into a tough spot.”

Fake disabilities in travel have gone too far

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

“You can imagine my complete shock when we landed in Florida and all of those priority wheelchair boarders popped up like little jack-in-the-boxes and skipped 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. 

Fake service animals became such a problem that the Department of Transportation revised its rules around flying with emotional support animals. The government no longer considers them to be service animals, which are required by law to be allowed to fly with passengers on commercial airlines. 

“Unfortunately, the title emotional support animal is losing the respect it deserves because it’s being abused by people who simply want to travel with their pets on board, free of charge,” says Christine Benninger, president of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit organization.

The fake disability problem may be worse than you think

Frontier Airlines says a passenger wanted to take a squirrel on board with her because it was her emotional support animal. The airline does not allow "rodents" on board, including squirrels.

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

“We find every single traveler traveling with a pet calls it a service animal,” says Brian Zaugg, who manages two hotels in Seattle. “Yet the number of animals I’ve seen over the past two-plus decades that were clearly apparently service animals is zero.”

In hotels, fakers also are known to request handicapped accessible rooms because there’s more space to stretch out. 

On one American Airlines flight, a passenger reportedly faked a medical condition to secure an upgrade to first class. Instead of complying, the pilot made an emergency landing. Police then escorted the passenger off the flight. 

Faking a disability in travel is ‘an especially delicate issue’

“This is a challenging situation for companies to address and an especially delicate issue that they should approach very carefully,” says Vassilis Dalakas, a marketing professor at Cal State University San Marcos. “I think companies would rather err by allowing a fake disability to get through than by questioning a legitimate one.”

Most critics focus on the faker, but not the reason for the faking. But stopping the shenanigans requires that we go there. For example, why did the American Airlines passenger so desperately want a better seat? 

Maybe it’s because the regional jet had eensy-weensy, claustrophobia-inducing seats. And if the airline took out a few rows of seats, giving everyone a little breathing space, it would fix the problem.

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

The fake service-animal problem is more complicated. Passengers want to travel with their beloved pets because they offer unconditional love. People are attached to their animal companions. Pet care spending reached a record-breaking $72 billion in 2018, up 4% from the previous year, according to the American Pet Products Association. Yet, no animal has ever asked to fly on a plane or stay in a hotel. 

There’s a word for that: anthropomorphization – attributing human qualities to something not human. Unless we can do something about our collective anthropomorphization, this belief that animals are our babies and have to travel everywhere with us, we’re going to have to deal with even more fake disabilities down the road.

Ultimately, people with fake disabilities are hurting people with real disabilities the most. They’re taking away their handicapped-accessible rooms and their wheelchairs and also making it more difficult to bring their real service animals. The sooner we fix fake disabilities in travel, the better.

How NOT to tell someone if someone has a disability

By asking them. Airline passengers are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability. Generally, travel companies don’t ask for proof of a disability before providing wheelchairs or special accommodations.

By inspecting their “service” animal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are not required to wear a harness, ID or vest. You can’t tell by looking at 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 apparent. That may lead to disbelief about the illness that hurts the person with a disability, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association, a nonprofit organization. Don’t assume the seemingly healthy person using a handicapped spot doesn’t belong there.

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

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