Disability pretenders are traveling again. But do they have a point?

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By Christopher Elliott

Have you ever been on a miracle flight? You know, where there’s a line of wheelchairs waiting to pre-board — but somehow, those same passengers can walk off the plane unassisted after they arrive? It’s a miracle!

It happened to Stephen Caron on a trip from Charlotte to Denver.

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

The passenger then made a beeline to the baggage claim in Denver, a lengthy walk from the gate, completely unassisted.

Lori Moore saw a disability pretender on a recent South American cruise, too. The woman navigated the buffet line effortlessly and walked around the vessel without so much as a limp.

“But whenever we had shore excursions or ports that required a tender, she was suddenly in a wheelchair to get priority boarding and sit in the handicapped seats in the front of the tour bus,” remembers Moore, a college professor from Louisville.

What is a disability pretender?

A disability pretender is someone who acts as if they are disabled. They may change their appearance to suggest they are disabled (such as wearing sunglasses indoors to pretend they are visually impaired). In travel, being disabled can qualify you for perks such as priority boarding, roomier seating on planes and trains, and larger hotel rooms. But not all disability pretenders do it for the comfort. Some of them fake a disability for attention or social status. Others claim to be disabled so that they can bring their pets on a plane or hotel room.

Disability pretenders are everywhere

Disability pretenders are becoming more common in travel.  From bogus service animals to feigned injuries, the travel industry is filled with fakers. There may be a reason for it. Travel companies, and particularly airlines, often make the trip so uncomfortable that passengers feel justified in being untruthful. For disability pretenders, travel is so difficult that you have to pretend to be disabled to be treated with dignity and respect. But are the fakers justified in lying about their condition? (Scroll down to take our poll.)

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Not all disabilities are obvious

Before we crack down on “miracle” flights or pets passing 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, Colo., “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 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.”

Have fake disabilities in travel gone too far?

Some travelers say the fake disability problem has crossed a line. 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.  (Here’s our guide to travel health and safety.)

“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 disabilities problem may be worse than you think

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 recent 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. 

How to deal with a fake disability in travel

There’s a way to deal with these disability pretenders in travel, experts say.

“It’s 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.

What to do about fake service animals

The fake service animal problem is more complicated. Passengers want to travel with their beloved pets because they offer unconditional love. People can’t live without their animal companions. Pet care spending reached a record-breaking $143.6 billion this year, up 5 percent 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. (Related: As airlines try to monetize seat assignments, are passengers with disabilities being left behind?)

At the same time, the fakers make a valid point. Travel has become so difficult and uncomfortable that some people feel justified in pretending they have a disability. Perhaps that says more about the current state of travel than it does about the fakers.

Are disability pretenders justified in travel?

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Elliott’s tips for not handling a disability pretender

It would be easy to read a story like this and to appoint yourself the disability police on a plane or at a hotel. Bad idea. Here are some ways you can’t tell if someone is a disability pretender (so don’t even try).

By asking them

The Air Carrier Access Act, a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability, protects airline passengers. Generally, travel companies don’t ask for proof of a disability before providing wheelchairs or special accommodations.

By inspecting their “service” animal

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t require service animals to wear a harness, ID, or vest. You can’t tell by looking at a service dog. (Note: the Department of Transportation doesn’t consider emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals to be 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.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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