Many people with disabilities use a service animal in order to fully participate in everyday life. Dogs can be trained to perform many important tasks to assist people with disabilities, such as providing stability for a person who has trouble walking, picking up items for a person who uses a wheelchair, preventing a child with autism from wandering away, or alerting a person who has hearing loss when someone is approaching from behind.
There are also emotional support animals which are different than service animals. The definition of a service animal is “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability”. An emotional support animal provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. An emotional support animal does not have to be a dog.
Why is the distinction between a service animal and an emotional support animal important? Well, it can affect your rights as a business owner or as the owner of one of these animals.
Today, it is easier than ever for a person to print out a badge, buy a vest or print a certificate stating that their animal is a service animal just so they can bring their pets into places where animals cannot usually go or to avoid a pet deposit or fee for their apartment. This has made it difficult for business owners or landlords who do not want to risk being sued by denying entry. Even airlines have begun to struggle with this issue.
One example is when a woman said she was bringing an emotional support animal on her flight but failed to mention that it was a squirrel. She refused to leave the plane after staff told her only cats and dogs were allowed in the airline’s cabins. The flight was delayed two hours and the woman and her squirrel were eventually escorted off the plane.
So what animals are allowed where? And how do you know if it is a service animal or an emotional support/therapy/companion animal? Service dogs and their owners are not required to display ID, certification or documentation identifying their dog as a service animal. To start, all service animals are dogs. While the use of miniature horses by the disabled has been growing in popularity, they are still not considered a service animal. Service dogs are allowed in any public place as long as they would not “fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program”. Even though miniature horses are not service animals, the ADA does make provisions for their use in public places.
While your business may have a “No Animal” policy, this does not include service animals. If you refuse service or ask a person with a service animal to leave due to this policy, they could actually have a claim for discrimination. There are some circumstances where you can ask a person and their service animal to leave.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses have the right to remove uncontrolled, disruptive, or poorly behaved animals as well as any animals whose behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others. Businesses can also charge individuals/handlers for any damages caused by their animal. Animals must be under the control of the handler either by tether, voice or some other means as their disability permits. If in a hotel, animals may not be left in the room unattended. The animals should also be housebroken and vaccinated in accordance with local laws.
Other miscellaneous rules under the ADA include:
- In stores, dogs must generally stay on the floor or be carried. They are generally not allowed to be placed in a shopping cart.
- At restaurants, bars, and places where food and drink is served, the entity is not required to allow the dog to sit in a chair or to be fed at the table.
- Service dogs are not permitted in public swimming pools, however they must be allowed on the pool deck and othe rareas the public is allowed to go.
- Religious institutions and organizations are specifically exempt from the ADA, however there may be state laws that apply to religious organizations.
- Commercial airlines comply with the Air Carrier Access Act which is a Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities for air travel. They do not have to comply with the ADA.
All breeds can be certified service dogs under the ADA and therefore can not be excluded from any entities. All service dogs must still comply to local and state legislation such as licensing and vaccination requirements.
If you are an employee or a business owner in a situation where you are unsure if an animal is a service animal, you are only permitted to ask two specific questions:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
If you are a landlord or housing provider, you are required to provide reasonable accommodation and therefore, emotional support animals must be allowed. To verify that an animal is in fact an assistance animal and not a pet, you are permitted to ask two questions:
- Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability – i.e. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
- Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
If the answer is “no” to either of the questions, the housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation. If the answer is “yes” to both, the Fair Housing Act requires an exception to any “no pets” rule.
If a person with a disability needs to use an assistance animal, he or she must first make the request to his or her housing provider or housing board. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says that a person seeking the accommodation must submit reliable documentation of the disability and disability-related need for the assistance animal if the disability is not known or readily apparent. This documentation is usually a letter from a medical doctor or treating therapist who can establish the disability and need for an assistance animal. The housing provider may not ask for access to medical records or unreasonably delay the request.
Requests for an assistance animal are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. This means that housing providers cannot limit the assistance animal with general assumptions about species or breeds. There must be an individualized assessment of the specific assistance animal to determine if it poses a direct threat of harm or would cause substantial property damage.
Once these requirements are met, HUD goes on to say that restrictions normally applied to pets cannot be applied to assistance animals. Housing providers cannot charge a “pet deposit” for disabled individuals who rely on assistance animals.
It is becoming increasingly harder to be sure whether or not an animal is a service animal or accommodation animal. If you are unsure, visit the ADA website and check with your local or state laws to be sure you and your employees comply with the law.