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People Are Pretending to Be Disabled So Their Pets Can Fly with Them

We spoke with a website that doles out disability doctor's letters, and one woman recently accused of cheating the system.

by Diana Tourjée
Dec 8 2015, 12:05am

Photo by Terry Schmidbauer via Stocksy

Peaceful air travel, as a concept, seems rather unrealistic. Flying commercial means you might have to squeeze into a seat that is unnervingly small (and shrinking) and breathe recycled air. And, even though it's ridiculously unlikely, plenty of people still worry about their beach-bound plane crashing. It's possible to cope with prescription meds, like Xanax, to dull the senses. But for some, emotional support animals (ESA) also provide much needed relief.

With your cat, bird, or dog on your lap, flying might be less frightening; some even fake disability for the privilege of traveling with an ESA. The New York Post reports that because doctor's letter can be ordered online, people are able to "game the system." These are passengers who want to take their accessory-sized animals wherever they go, according to the Post, who feel justified doing so due to the burden of in-flight discomfort and the restrictive nature of airline regulations. One man featured in the article was put in first class because his miniature horse didn't fit in coach. It pooped all over the floor.

The right to travel with an ESA is a result of the Air Carrier Access Act, which bans discrimination against disabled people in air travel and requires that carriers accommodate their needs. While the ACA generally covers people with severe disabilities, such as the blind and others who require service pets, it also covers those who can prove that their pet provides necessary emotional support. All one needs is qualifying paperwork from a medical professional.

Animal Companions (AC) is an organization that provides ESA letters to people. "We have a survey evaluation questionnaire that determines eligibility by screening the clients first to see if they [have] emotional histories of instability, and we evaluate the client based on their mental health status," Adriana Santoro, AC's Director of Human Resources, wrote in an email to Broadly. Their company employs psychologists who decide whether or not applicants qualify. "We have an algorithm that determines eligibility that we've worked on with our psychologist team to weed out any clients who do not need this service."

According to Santoro, pets give emotional stability to people because they offer a reprieve from one's anxieties by demanding requiring flyers to focus on something else. "It provides companionship to the patient and the ability for the patients to not obsess and ruminate on their current issues. Companionship is a huge remedy." But there's a difference between people who appreciate the comfort that their pet provides, and those who experience such severe emotional distress without them that they qualify for special needs."These are non-side effect remedies and solutions for those suffering mental health conditions and not wanting to take medication."

"Anything in this world has fakers trying to game the system," Santoro said. "We do our best to weed out any fakes and feel that this should only be used by those who need an emotional support animal to function at their highest level."

Alyssa Ramos is a travel blogger. She was at the center of the recent New York Post article about people who fake the ESA system. According to her, the Post got it all wrong. "I'm not surprised that I'd be targeted as the stereotypical blonde girl with a tiny dog who thinks they're so entitled that they can just do whatever they want, including obtain 'special privileges' just so their dog can fly for free, but that's not the case," Ramos wrote in an email to Broadly from the airport, on her way to Peru.

Ramos told Broadly that she has overcome a very real history of hardship. "I've been in several traumatic incidents... On top of that, I travel the world by myself, constantly trying to inspire people to do the same, even though there's so many people and things trying to get me down, and truthfully, it takes an emotional toll on you, which the [NYP] article has so clearly exemplified."

Ramos said that she never claimed to have a disability, that she's seen the severity and impact of disability firsthand and wouldn't take advantage of the system in that way. "I would never ever use that as an excuse to bring a dog on a plane. I have my own reasons for needing to travel with my dog, and they aren't for the purpose that the [NYP] article portrays." She further added that it's actually against the law to ask someone why they have a service animal and that she doubts that "many people would be happy with their reasons being publicized."

Ramos said that she feels misrepresented, which speaks to the challenge of scrutinizing participants in disability policies. She adds that the majority of people from West Hollywood do indeed have their pets certified for travel. While Ramos accepts the fact that many people get their pets certified just so they can fly for free, she maintains that wasn't her motivation, and she thinks it's ridiculous.

"Not to mention, I was grouped in the same article as people who have tried to [bring] miniature horses on board," she said.