USA Today recently published an article looking at the growing and troubling trend of people who are (or are suspecting to be) faking a disability in order to get preferred status during travel, especially in regard to airlines. From wanting to board first, to making very questionable claims asserting an accompanying pet is a “service animal,” people are apparently gaming the system to make airline travel easier.

Among the most egregious violators are those passengers who board first, in wheelchairs, and then when the flight is over, walk off the plane and down to baggage claim without any need of assistance. Airline personnel derisively refer to these types of passengers as recipients of miracle healing, as if they had been given divine intervention at 25,000 feet. Other instances are of passengers claiming a pet as a service animal in order to (a) have them with them on the flight and (b) avoiding paying the extra fees for travelling with a pet.

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

It’s a unique corner of life because being a person with a disability is generally NOT a status people are clamoring to be a part of. People with disabilities have a harder time moving through the world. People with disabilities, as a general rule, have very low employment rates and are more likely to live in a lower socioeconomic status. There are few areas of life where there are substantive privileges associated with being a person with a disability.

One of those areas, of course, is in the area of long-term disability, especially in the case of accident litigation. Insurance companies and employers have long suspected injured parties involved in legal cases to be faking, exaggerating, or malingering their symptoms. Certainly, there are some people who do not meet the definition of permanent disability who are applying for SSDI, SSI and workers’ compensation benefits. I suspect there is no end to unscrupulous people who will try to game the system, as evidenced by the thousands of people currently fraudulently filing for unemployment during the pandemic.

There are areas of life where it is perfectly acceptable to utilize services or areas that are are also accessible to people with disabilities. That is the entire point of the concept of Universal Design in architechture. I attended Miami (Ohio) University in the late 1980s, and it was, for the most part, a highly inaccessible place for people with wheelchairs at that time. King Library – a 3-story building – had an elevator with a big wheelchair placard on it. Just because the elevator is the sole way a wheelchair user could reach the 3rd floor is not a reason for an ambulatory person to skip the elevator. The elevator is for everyone, including people with disabilities.

If you do not have a disability and you enter a public restroom that is empty, you should generally not use the accessible stalls, leaving them open in case a person with a disability’s arrival is imminent. If it is the only unoccupied stall, however, it is perfectly acceptable to use it. There is no constitutional right for a person with a disability to not have to wait for an elevator or an accessible bathroom stall, only that those options are available in the environment.

But to fake a disability to get a preferable seat on a flight, to avoid a pet fee, and to secure a prime parking spot is contemptible. These are rights of people with actual disabilities which were long fought for and their arrival signaled a tremendous step forward in our society. They are things that represent small steps toward equality. They don’t make life easy for people with disabilities, but they do make life a little less difficult. To fake a disability to do the same thing for yourself is very sad indeed.

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