A Very Real Scandal

There’s a real “Scandal” out there but it’s not ABC’s Thursday night political TV thriller starring Kerry Washington (but can I just say, huge fan?!). Nope, the real scandal that no one is talking about is the proliferation of faux service dogs.image

While I’d love to be able to take Sam with me everywhere I go, in good conscience I just can’t do that under false pretenses. Oh sure, I’ve thought about it. I mean, after all, who’d be hurt by a sweet goofy, Standard Poodle wearing a vest whenever I go out? It would only take a matter of visiting any number of web sites (my Google search for service dog vests for sale showed over 56 million hits with some priced as low as $37!). Just pay the fee and viola, I’d be the proud owner of a ‘service dog’ that could go anywhere and according to the American with Disabilities Act, not be denied legal access. But we all know that Sam, sweet as he may be, is no service dog by any stretch of the imagination and even though he provides comfort and emotional support he simply does not qualify as a service animal under the definition in the ADA but the people who’d be hurt most would be the disabled themselves and I can’t do that.

So why is that a problem? People with real disabilities are increasingly being denied access. Recently a couple of stories of veterans who were asked to leave restaurants surfaced setting the ‘Net ablaze in the disabled community. See: Subway restaurant and Minnesota incident for details. Stories like these are beginning to highlight the tip of this scandal iceberg. Estimates suggest there are probably around 20,000 or so legitimate service dog teams yet hundreds of thousands of vests, certificates and IDs are sold every year and the kicker here is…it’s all perfectly legal to buy and possess them.

When I travelled to Hawaii last year, a woman with a very small fluff of a dog was trying desperately to get a ticket agent to allow her to bring her dog on board. When she finally screeched that the dog was her ‘companion’ dog and she absolutely had to have it with her, the agent relented probably because of the kerfuffle being created (and the fact that the dog would easily fit under the seat I suspect). While it seemed like a sweet (albeit nervous) little dog, that dog was no more a service dog than I am.

Service dogs are NOT pets. They are however important working resources for the disabled that allow them to deal with a semi-normal day-to-day life and as such they are a necessity, not just a ‘gee I’d love to take my dog with me everywhere just because’ thing. The ADA’s policies relating to service dogs are enforced through the states but only 16 states have specific laws regarding the consequences of misrepresentation of service dogs or identifying oneself as disabled so enforcement is often hit or miss under the guidelines. Sadly, there’s nothing to prevent anyone from strapping a vest on their pooch and walking through their local mall posing as a service dog team. The ambiguity with a lack of central governance and certification seems to have created loopholes in the system and fixing it is not going to be easy. The backlash associated with challenging a disabled person is nothing most large businesses want any part of and it could be difficult to know the difference between the real deal and a fake based merely upon appearance. One aspect that especially contributes to this ongoing fraud, is that it is illegal to ask about a person’s disability, require seeing medical documentation, identification card or training documentation for that matter. And that’s kind of the heart of this problem. It’s obvious that relying on an honor system (both in people offering to sell these vests and those who buy them) isn’t working to resolve this scandal or make it easier for those who really need these amazing creatures to make their lives more positive.

These fake service dog teams are creating additional and unnecessary discrimination toward the disabled who already suffer institutionalized discrimination due to the mere fact they are disabled. As the stories reported earlier mentioned, some find it can be a constant and uphill battle just to survive in an increasingly difficult-to-fit-in society when you’re disabled. We all profess to ‘support our troops’ but sometimes when the rubber actually hits the road, it’s a whole different story. In the meantime, more and more self-absorbed people continue to order service vests so they can take their dogs to the movies or restaurants with them…because they just “want” to have their dogs with them all the time-not because they really need them as a service dog.

What do you think about faux service dogs? Have you seen this scandal in action?

Live, love, bark! <3

P.S. Since publication of this post, I have found a report that really explains it all in detail. It can be downloaded here.