Invisible privilege

I was disturbed by this news story about people using fake therapy dogs in order to be able to take them places that they might otherwise not be allowed to go. And they actually brag about doing so, as if it is clever to abuse this aid given to people with disabilities.

“I took Bubs out for a walk and it started raining and I don’t feel like walking him home so we’re going to get on the bus and I’m going to make him a disabled dog,” said an unidentified man in a video in which he brags about putting a muzzle and fake vest on his dog to ride public transit and later get special treatment at a restaurant. “This service dog scam works pretty good. Take a bow Bubs. Good service dog!”

In recent New York Post story, several candid dog owners bragged of their own fakery. After purchasing vests, patches and certificates online, they talked about taking their dogs grocery shopping, nightclubbing and to the theater.

“He’s been to most movie theaters in the city and more nightclubs than most of my friends,” a 33-year old New Yorker told the newspaper about his Yorkie.

One of the curious things about people who were born with privileges or inherited them at an early age or are without disabilities is that the benefits of having those privileges are often invisible to them. They simply take it for granted that everyone has them. Hence when efforts are made to right the balance to make it fairer for those without, they sometimes feel a sense of grievance and resort to ad hoc measures to redress what they see as unfairness directed against them.

This kind of abuse in the case of therapy dogs can cause problems for those with genuine need for the dogs, especially for those whose need is not obvious, because now everyone will be viewed with suspicion. A colleague of mine has a therapy dog that is trained to sense when she might need medications and alerts her to take it to prevent her from a sudden onset of her symptoms. She looks fine on the surface and even I had not suspected that she had a medical condition until she told me the first time I saw her with the dog. I unthinkingly petted the dog, as is my custom, until she gently pointed out to me that he had his vest on and was thus ‘on duty’, and one should leave them alone at those times.

Thanks to the Americans with Disability Act, there are many public accommodations that now make it easier for people with disabilities to participate more fully in everyday activities that those without disabilities take for granted. But some people ignore all the immense challenges that people with disabilities face on a daily basis and seem to resent these concessions made that enable them to live fuller lives. This is invisible privilege at work.

So we have the case of people feigning disability in order to get the handicap hangtags (or using tags that were issued to others) that enable them to park in those convenient spots near stores. This abuse has become so common that it has resulted in people being viewed with suspicion when they park in those spots and scrutinized to see if they actually have a disability. This is particularly hard on those whose disability is not easily apparent and who have to sometimes face disapproving looks from people who think that they too are abusing the privilege.

The more egregious cases are like those I wrote about earlier with wealthy people actually hiring disabled people at amusement parks like Disney World so that they can go to the front of the long lines.

Invisible privilege is perhaps seen most clearly in the case of affirmative action in college admissions. Some white students see themselves as being treated unfairly because a member of an underprivileged and underrepresented minority may get into a college they were excluded from, even though they had similar grades and test scores.

But the unfairness they sense is because they are looking at things only within a narrow time frame, just at the point of college admissions. If you take the long view, the real question is whether the white students would have been willing to live their whole life being a member of the underrepresented community in order to get that particular benefit at the point of college admissions. In other words, would they have been willing to have been born black (say) instead of white?

I think the honest answer would be ‘no’. At some level, we all realize that to be born white in the US is to be the beneficiary of immense, if often hidden, privileges and the slight edge that college affirmative action admission policies give to some people comes nowhere near to redressing that imbalance. A white student who does not get into their first choice of college still benefits hugely for the rest of her life over a minority student who does.

And it is not just white privilege. My own children, being south Asian, are members of a group that tends to be over-represented in US colleges compared to their population, especially in the more elite schools. They likely faced a harder time gaining admission to colleges than a black or Hispanic or even white student. But it would be absurd to think that they would have had easier lives overall if they had been born black or Hispanic.

So to the people who think that it is clever to falsely feign disability in order to gain these ‘perks’ (as they see it), I would ask them: Would you trade your non-disabled life for one with a disability just to get that slight benefit?


  1. says

    As someone with a Disability (Chronic PTSD and Complex PTSD/DESNOS) as well as someone with Autism (PDD-NOS) as well as petit mal/absence seizures, Major Depression, and ADHD, I want to thank you so much for writing this article. Thanks again. Oh, also, thanks. Amazing article =~)


  2. Jockaira says


    I think you are giving these scumbags way too much slack. Quite simply they are free-riding social parasites who deserve public shaming, huge fines, and the permanent loss of some or all of their privilege. There is some good to be had from the Disneyland cheaters and their ilk: the participating disableds are usually paid generous amounts for their participation.

    As for the privileges extended to certain college students, that matter should be decided solely upon scholastic aptitude perhaps with a small weighted test score bonus based on actual conditions of economic deprivation, in a manner similar to Veteran’s preferences given to applicants to the USPS. No one should be guaranteed admission to college based upon the wealth or social connections of his parents. Government-guaranteed educational loans should be means tested and available only for those with proven scholastic ability.

    Straight meritocratic principles are the only alternative for a society wanting to fair and equal to all while at the same time having the best probable long-rage outcome for the success of that society.

  3. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Jockaira, how did Mano give them too much slack? And how does one remove privilege? The only way to do that is to change culture, which is something many in the community here try to do.

    Your meritocracy won’t work, because of privilege. You cannot test scholastic aptitude without simultaneously testing the quality and amount of privilege a prospective student has. (Also, regardless of privilege, some people excel in university where they did not in secondary school.)

    Meritocratic principles are great, all other things being equal. Which they are not. No argument against rejecting excessive privilege, which is easily identifiable (in the university example, connections, “legacy”, etc.).

  4. smrnda says

    This is pretty disgusting. I recall a commenter on another blog, in a discussion of accommodations provided to the disabled or to racial minorities, made some remark about those groups of people all ‘scrambling for special perks.’ It’s the typical over-privileged bullshit of not noticing that the ‘special perks’ given to disadvantaged groups hardly makes up for the difficulties they face on a day to day basis.

    Is this sort of behavior increasing? I’d blame the individual people, bu I’d also say that when you have a class of people who pretty much are getting privileges and who shamelessly piss and shit on the rest of the population quite visibly, this sort of behavior is bound to increase.

    I also wonder if this is a product of the all too common talking point which casts the disabled as people living high on free government benefits. It’s morally disgusting to think like that, but I worry that the viewpoint is kind of prevalent given the attacks on anyone getting government money or special accommodations.

  5. Aliasalpha says

    Sounds like the kind of person who’d try to enter the paralympics as an amputee because they’d had their tonsils out

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