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the free-loader problem

I’ve talked about the freeloader problem in the past, in relation to trans bathroom panic[^aka]. Today I’m going to discuss it in a general sense, after seeing a post talking about how ‘fake’ support animals are harmful to those with ‘real’ support animals. Now, this is just one example. Disability in general seems particularly vulnerable to this type of problem (and ppl’s erroneous reactions to it).

The post I read basically said that sometimes people might lie about their animal being a support animal and, should this animal misbehave, it creates future difficulties for other people. Or people to get bogus ‘credentials’ to prove their animal is legit when – depending on your jurisdiction – such documentation may not be necessary.

I’ve seen similar things play in regards to autism. Where people with Official Diagnoses like to wag our fingers at people who’ve self-dx’d, since they apparently suck up resources or whatever. Similarly, I’ve seen something likewise articulated about ADHD where someone was complaining that ‘fakers’ lower the overall stock and make meds harder to access.

Now. I’m not going to say that this isn’t an actual problem. It is. But it isn’t the problem people are making it out to be. One thing I’ll note is that these arguments are exactly the same as the ‘(Black) welfare queen’ narrative around social services. They are literally the same. And they point to the same problem.

Most people think that the problem is that there are frauds who make things difficult for people with ‘real’ problems. Welfare queens make it difficult for hardworking (white) americans to access social services when they need it. People with fake service animals create environments where disabled people are called to defend their right to exist in public space. And so on.

But this isn’t actually the problem. Within any given social system the problem of freeloaders exists. Its unescapable given the nature of the goods/services under discussion. And, no, the problem has no solution.

Why? Because it is impossible to effectively tell the difference between a person with a fake service animal and one with a real one. The post I read points to misbehaviour of the fake-service animal as a way to mark the difference. But this isn’t actually principled and ‘good behaviour’ is also subjective.

More to the point, the situation could be reversed. Maybe a person who just wants their dog everywhere with them knows that if their dog is well-trained then they’ll have an easier time passing it as a real service animals, so they make sure to train their dog in the exact same way as real service animals. Maybe they even buy a dog that is supposed to go to a disabled person. Then there is a person who wants a service animal but cannot spend the additional cost of a properly trained one, so they get one from the animal shelter. The dog is awfully behaved but it is clearly not trained as a service animal.

Based on the post’s criteria, the disabled person with the poorly trained animal is ‘faking it’ and thus making it harder for people like the abled person with a properly trained animal.

Or worse yet. Say an abled person does just buy a service animal (which also means some disabled person is unable to buy that same animal). And a disabled person likewise buys a service animal. Both buy them from the same trainer, fuck even the same litter. By and large, their animals are equivalent. How do you tell the difference between the fake service animal and the real one?

A person could reply to the above scenario by pointing out that the service animal is really a service animal, its just the owner that’s a fake. As such, because the animal has the right training it is unlikely to behave in ways that cause difficulty for disabled people with ‘real’ service animals. But that assumes that the faker has the dog ‘working’ whenever they are in public. But since they don’t actually need the dog to work as it is trained, perhaps they just let it wander around and be disruptive.

Again the point I’m making is that there will always be freeloaders. The usual solution to the freeloader problem – and we’ve all seen how this plays out in real life – is government regulation. Take a look at how damaging the misogynoiristic ‘welfare queen’ narrative was to the overall access to social services.

Everytime the gov’t gets worried about freeloaders they increase regulations: thus, they likewise create more barriers for accessing necessary services. It leads to things like Florida’s regulation that welfare recipients take drug tests. Unsurpringly, very few recipients tested positive and the law (thank god) was struck down.

The posts like the one I saw bothers me because it focuses people on a problem that, yes, is real but is also unsolveable. It entirely depends on getting people who’s morals have relaxed enough that they are willing to take advantage of resources designed to help other people. If a person has decided that this is what they want to do, the likelihood of some tumblr post trying to shame them is unlikely to make much of an impact.

Rather, the real problem is the institutional and systemic ones that the same post pointed out. Problems like store owners not actually knowing what the relevant laws are and what they duty to accommodate entails. It points to the larger, pervasive problem of all people with disabilities being viewed as possibly faking it. It points to the, again larger, problem of how many putatively public spaces are actually designed to exclude disabled people. In other words, it points to the fact that institutionalized ableism exists and this is what makes things difficult.

Yes. Freeloaders cause real problems. But these problems are a consequence of much larger systems of oppression. As with the welfare example, if everyone had all of their fundamental needs met (food, clothing, shelter, water, etc), its unlikely anyone would need welfare at all. Welfare itself exists to address a fundamentally inequity within our culture.

Basically: freeloaders aren’t the real problem, oppression is.