Should we hate online service dog certification?

by Bradley W. Morris, MA, CPhil

Are we fated to stick to our first impressions on passion-infused issues—or is it possible to develop a nuanced view? Brad Morris tries to convince you not to be a “total hater” when it comes to service dog documentation sites, instead practicing compassion for those who rely on the better ones.

Editor’s note: The main argument in this 2019 article still applies. However, as of January 11, 2021, service dog users do not need third-party documentation for housing or flying, but ESA users might need it for housing. See our Laws FAQ or service dog letter templates article for more info.

The bust of a smiling man with a large beard, sitting in a power wheelchair and looking left with bright greenery in the background. The man wear a purple straw fedora, a purple blazer, pink dress shirt, a pink-background tie with flowers of different colors, and a multi-color giraffe lapel pin. The sun shines brightly down on him.

Brad warmly invites you to consider policy impacts on the disability community

Dogs and disabilities.

Separately, these topics blunder across our emotional tripwires. Pair a dog with a disabled person and our mouths can say things while our brains are on sleep mode!

This is dangerous because we need to understand what’s going on if we’re going to make polices that affect assistance animal users. And it looks like this policy area might soon see action around websites that offer some form of documentation, given the recent letter from the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That’s why it’s time we get a few things straight when it comes to these documentation sites.

First, there are scam sites and they are bad.

Generally, sites are bad if they mislead consumers into thinking: (A) consumers legally need to buy something they don’t, (B) it’s okay for consumers to do something fraudulent, or (C) consumers can fulfill a legal need through the site that they can’t.

So if a business is set up to make money by any nefarious means possible, that’s not okay. This includes deceptively taking money from disabled people for worthless documentation, and this includes encouraging non-disabled people to buy fraudulent documentation to avoid pet fees (“Take your pet anywhere!”).

Second, the documentation sites didn’t arrive without reason.

HUD and the Department of Transportation (DOT) separately created policies that ended up requiring some assistance animal users to get documentation from a third party. That means some people with disabilities need to get this outside validation, whether these policies are right or wrong.

This is not just about non-disabled “fakers” using these sites to game the system, much as we love to hate that.

Third, documentation sites are not inherently bad.

Here’s a parallel personal example. When I became disabled, I needed my doctor to sign a form so I could get short-term disability benefits from the state insurance program I paid into. She wouldn’t sign it because she didn’t want any “liability”.

I wasn’t rich, so this was at a low-cost clinic in a rural area. I didn’t have multiple options and I definitely didn’t have the energy to fight. I did not get the benefits I was owed and my life was worse because of it.

Some people don’t have unlimited local healthcare options. If the government forces people with disabilities to pay some kind of outside gatekeeper in order to get along in the world, we should be grateful for the emergence of telemedicine and online businesses that allow us to legitimately get our needs met.

Whether it’s out of convenience or necessity, disabled folks deserve the option of getting their needs met online. This goes for documentation needs as well as treatment.

And this means that sites in the direction of telemedicine—those that provide legally meaningful documentation from a healthcare professional without encouraging fraud—can be a net good. To clarify, sites that offer certification or a registry that are not meaningful under US law, while implying they are, are in the wrong direction.

Fourth, while a black-and-white approach would be too much, there should be policies and enforcement against the largest and most clearly egregious sites.

I’m not saying it’s ideal to get your needed documentation from a healthcare professional who just reviews your multiple-choice answers online. I’m saying what’s worse is letting our privileged outrage block some of society’s most marginalized people from getting what they need to participate.

Our policies might push some twisted priorities if we’re even just making it harder on people with disabilities, all because of a crusade against fraudsters. Disability rights laws are primarily supposed to make access easier for disabled folks. An all-or-nothing policy/enforcement strategy would harm housing and flying access for disabled people with legitimate needs, while the worst of the fraudsters would find ways to persist.

But there is a strong need for enforcement action against top-ranked sites that misrepresent the law. In my position, I talk with these sites’ victims and with those who have to deal with the fraud fallout. These sites do swindle our community and they do supercharge the fraud pipeline.

When I consider the whole of this, I try to use my compassion for my disability community to temper my outrage at the limited fakers. Just like you can’t assume someone’s faking because you think they don’t “look disabled”, you can’t assume a site should be shut down because you can’t see at first how important it can be for people with disabilities. The combination of current federal policies with reasonable, real-world personal situations forces some earnest community members to go online to comply.

Sites where a medical professional provides a legally required letter (without deception or encouraging fraud) should not be the focus of our wrath. Let’s be wise and aim that advocacy ire at the loudest and most shameless charlatans—those who prey on ignorance and promote deceit.