Scam Service Dogs are More Complicated than David Leonhardt Knows

David Leonhardt writes about fake service animals and their dishonest owners in the January 5, 2018 New York Times. I don’t know Mr. Leonhardt personally and so I have no idea what his private relationship to disability might be—one shouldn’t assume indifference—but when a writer uses the word “handicapped” in the 21st century one must wonder how versed the author is with disability. (I know at least a thousand disabled people and not one has his or her cap in their hands while begging on a street corner.) I wonder if Mr. Leonhardt would describe women as “wenches?”

It matters what you call us if you’re going to write about us. The disabled are members of society and if one supposes language doesn’t matter consider this: the word “handicap” carries within it (in addition to physical disadvantage) a whiff of dishonesty as in “a race or contest in which an artificial advantage is given or disadvantage imposed on a contestant to equalize chances of winning.” (Merriam-Webster.com)

The spectacle of American life has always carried “sub rosa” a popular suspicion, often translated into entertainment, that the disabled (or at least the ones seen on the streets) are very likely nothing more than scam artists. In popular imagination the words scam and handicap go together like baseball and hot dogs. It might also interest Mr. Leonhardt and his readers to know that the first motion pictures distributed in the United States invariably presented comic figures—men mostly—who swindled the public by feigning disability.

Comedy is one thing, reality where disability is concerned was often different. In the very era when those films were made “Ugly Laws” were enforced across the country—laws designed to keep the disabled off the streets and out of the public eye. By the late 19th century the rising middle class wanted to go window shopping or sit in cafes like the flaneurs of Paris. Public life offered a new kind of spectacle, the very streets were prosceniums. Asylums and prisons were hastily constructed to hide the disabled from view.

David Leonhardt’s article aims to highlight the current wave of faux service animals being passed off as necessary by airline customers who want nothing more than to bring their pets on airplanes. As a guide dog user I’m glad that he’s taking on the story. People who do not have disabilities are faking them so they can take their animals anywhere. I think Leonhardt’s motive for writing his piece was good. The problem is that public attitudes about disability are not informed by knowledge and sophistication. As I wrote just last week:

In the world of service animals, guide dogs are the gold standard. They are trained to guide the blind through heavy traffic, watch for low-hanging branches, take evasive measures when cars or bicycles run red lights, watch for stairs and even prevent their partners from stepping off subway platforms. Yes, they’re also trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive in restaurants and on public transportation. This professionalism is possible because guide dog schools spend tens of thousands of dollars breeding, raising and training each dog.

Leonhardt is right: the woman with a peacock claiming in the airport her bird is some kind of emotional support creature is in fact a problem. He’s also right to point out that when travelers feigning disabilities bring their untrained dogs on aircraft (with phony papers of course) they’re harming those of us who have genuine disabilities. They’re also trading on the extraordinary professionalism well trained service dog users and their canine companions have demonstrated for decades. Yes, there’s deception going on. I’ll grant this. And yes, this problem affects me and all of the disabled who rely on guide dogs, PTSD service dogs, hearing alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, mobility assistance dogs—these are dogs serving real needs and these teams have civil rights to travel wherever the public goes.

But forgive me: “scam” isn’t the right word to fairly describe what’s going on. Scam reeks of the old trope that the disabled are unseemly and might be, just like the beggars who imitated them, dishonest. Moreover I suspect many people who claim they require untrained dogs to manage even the simplest elements of daily life really believe this. In many respects the conundrum of fake service animals is more a sociological or psychological dynamic than a matter of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beat with me here. The ADA attempts to guarantee the privacy of the disabled by stipulating if you have a service dog you cannot be asked to show proof of your disability.  This is fair. It’s the same principle employed in pharmacies when you read signs that say: “Please stand behind this line to guarantee customer privacy.” It ain’t nobody’s business and you better believe Americans like their privacy.

If you’re a veteran who has a traumatic brain injury or post traumatic stress and you have a fabulously trained canine companion to assist you, I’ll bet you don’t want to tell everyone about it. Certainly not in the cramped entryway of a jetliner.

So you see there’s nuance and scruple to this where the disabled are concerned. That our capacity and right to travel with our professional dogs is being eroded by elements of the public who want to game the system is undeniable.

Finally where the airlines are concerned and speaking as a seasoned traveler most of their personnel are poorly trained—as are the disability support teams in airports who are generally subcontractors. Every year the airlines destroy thousands of wheelchairs when paralyzed travelers are forced to hand them over as luggage. In turn pet owners who put their pets in cargo know that this is a life and death gamble. If the airlines can’t safely transport wheelchairs and poodles why would any emotional pet owner want to risk putting Fido in the cargo hold?

The airlines have as much to do with this problem as those needy pet owners. Make it safe for non-essential pets to fly down below and United, Delta, et.al. will go a long way toward solving this problem.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger