Who’s cheatin’ who?

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on May 01, 2018 # Advocacy and Policy

We Americans are a jaded bunch, especially when it comes to the issue of “gaming the system” for personal profit. Every time we see an “investigative” TV news story showing a guy who receives SSDI payments for a bad back as he is being secretly filmed toting around huge bags of concrete mix, we collectively go, “See there, I told you so! Everyone is out there ripping off the government!” Or when you hear a story about people using kids in wheelchairs to get to the front of the line at Disneyland, the cry is, “See, everyone is ripping off Disneyland!” Or the story about the woman who carries her pet gerbil on the plane because it’s a “service animal,” we again yell at the TV, “See, everyone is ripping off the airlines!” That’s why local newscasts are full of these kinds of stories. They know they’ll get you all steamed up and watching through the next commercial break.

This is explained by a well-known psychological principle called the confirmation bias. We all look for evidence that confirms our own opinion of the world. It doesn’t take much. One snobby liberal is enough to convince liberal-haters that all liberals are elitists. Conversely, one racist alt-righter quickly confirms to the other half of the electorate that “they” are all racist pigs. Politicians exploit this principle constantly.

You’ll note that all the examples I used in the first paragraph were about disabilities. Post-ADA, disability is increasingly a public arena of outrage and attack. The growing narrative is all the special disability “perks” that “these people” get are an E-Ride to gaming the system and making the rest of us hard-working tax-payers look like suckers.

Parking placards are the easiest target. The non-disabled or kind-of-disabled are using crooked doctors to get them or buying fake ones and/or stealing them off dead relatives. Which inevitably leads to the question in the jaded American brain: how many so-called disabled people are really disabled and need all these advantages? Everyone with a disability is now looked upon as a potential scofflaw or system-gamer. Once that thought takes seed, you look around for other examples to confirm your skepticism. They are easy to find.

Like those darn fake service animals. I came across a great think piece about the service-animal dustup on CNN Online, written by Rebecca Cokley, the Senior Fellow for Disability Policy at the toney Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress.

As Ms. Cokley notes, because of the plethora of news accounts about fraudulent service pets on air flights – parakeets, mice, cockroaches -- Delta Airlines has instituted a policy requiring that flyers register their animals, with paperwork, 48 hours before any flight.The impact of this clamp-down, she rightfully concludes, “will fall on travelers with disabilities (who need service animals), making it harder to travel for business or pleasure.”

Ms. Cokley, herself a little person, sees this new distrust cum backlash against people with disabilities playing out on many fronts. Now in the news are reports that ADA-related lawsuits jumped 37% in 2016 and are generally on the rise. The jaded mind lights up: shyster lawyers = frivolous, “drive-by” lawsuits = money out of my pocket. Ms. Cokley drilled down and discovered that a third of these suits were initiated by twelve lawyers at a single, nationwide law firm! This wasn’t an epidemic of mass thievery based on a law way too easy to exploit. It was a handful of greedy lawyers pushing the envelope.

All these attacks on the rights of the disabled through the backdoor of cheaters and swindlers is an old trope in American politics. Back in 1976, Ronald Reagan took the story of one black woman in Chicago bilking the welfare system and turned into a fraudulent American icon – the famed “welfare queen,” easily translated into “lazy black person stealing welfare funds, buying drugs, and having babies so that can get more free government money.” It worked like gangbusters. “Welfare queen” entered the lexicon and became the touchstone for millions of “I told you so’s” for two generations.

As Rebecca Cokley explains, the collective result of this disability-cheating media myth leads to much larger crimes against people with disabilities than stolen placards or service animal scams. I will pick up this bigger picture – especially involving the attack on SSI/SSDI -- in my next blog. Stay tuned.