In Special Needs News

Guide dog with her blind handler on a sidewalk outdoors.Disability service animals play a crucial role in assisting individuals with disabilities, protecting their health, performing tasks, and navigating their daily lives. However, despite legal protections, discrimination against individuals with service animals still occurs.

The United States has laws that protect the rights of persons with disabilities who use service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against persons using service animals in various settings such as businesses, public accommodations, and housing.

What Constitutes a Service Animal

According to the ADA, service animals are any breed of dog individually trained to work or perform tasks directly related to a person’s disability. The animal is not required to wear a vest or other ID indicating their service status or the task directly relating to the person with a disability.

The service dog isn’t required to be certified and doesn’t have to graduate from a professional training program. Online sales of service animal registration or certification documents don’t convey any rights under the ADA, and the Department of Justice doesn’t recognize these documents as proof that the dog is a service animal.

Service dogs can be with their person, even in places prohibiting pets. With little exception, a service dog can accompany their person into:

  • Restaurants
  • Shops
  • Hotels
  • Schools
  • Hospitals

What a Service Dog Isn’t

An emotional support animal is not a service animal. Although an emotional support dog’s presence provides comfort to a person, if the animal doesn’t perform a task directly related to that person’s disability, they are not considered a service animal under the ADA.

However, some nuanced cases tend to PTSD and panic attacks where a person with an unseen disability has a dog trained to sense an anxiety or panic attack is about to happen. If that dog takes specific action to help avoid or lessen the attack’s impact, the dog is a service animal.

Examples of Service Tasks

  • Retrieving objects for a person who uses a wheelchair
  • Performing a task to remind a person with depression to take their medication
  • Licking the hand of their person to alert them to an oncoming panic attack
  • Detecting the onset of a seizure and helping the person remain safe during the episode

Government Agencies and Service Animals

The ADA is a civil rights law, and different government agencies are responsible for adherence to the ADA’s rules regarding service animals. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will oversee ADA regulations via the Fair Housing Act. Housing applies to public and private universities, public housing programs (federal, state, and local government), and emergency shelters.

If you are taking a commercial airline with a service animal, understand that the ADA doesn’t have the authority to oversee your specially trained animal. Instead, the Air Carrier Access Act applies as a federal law to protect the rights of people with disabilities regarding air travel. The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation can provide information about service animals and air travel.

Other government agencies include:

  • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • The U.S. Department of Education
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Inquiring if a Dog Is a Service Animal

If you are working in a state or local government facility or other business and it’s unclear if the presence of a dog is providing service for disability, you can legally ask two questions:

  1. Is this dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task is the service animal trained to perform?

You may not request documentation regarding registration, licensure, or certification of a service animal, nor can you require the service animal to perform its task or ask about the nature of the person’s disability.

Service Animal Exclusion Scenarios

According to the ADA, if the service animal’s presence would “fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public,” it is permissible to deny the service animal entry.

Other scenarios can include if the service dog is not housebroken or out of control and the person with a disability can’t get them to behave. State and local governments can also require service dogs to be licensed and vaccinated if all other dogs require them.

Religious organizations and those entities controlled by the same laws have no obligations under the ADA. Section 307 of the ADA, in part, states, “Even when a religious organization carries out activities that would otherwise make it a public accommodation, the religious organization is exempt from ADA coverage and … not subject to the ADA or [the Title III regulations].”

The Role of Disability Lawyers

Special needs planning attorneys specialize in advocating for individuals with disabilities and protecting their rights. If someone with a disability and a service animal experiences discrimination, a disability lawyer can assist as follows:

  • A disability lawyer can provide legal advice helping individuals understand their rights under applicable laws and provide guidance on the appropriate actions to take when facing discrimination.
  • If an individual faces discrimination, including their service animal, a disability attorney can file complaints with the appropriate agencies or authorities, such as the U.S. Department of Justice or a state’s civil rights division.
  • In some cases, a special needs planning lawyer may negotiate or mediate with the party responsible for the discrimination, seeking a resolution without the need for litigation.
  • If litigation becomes necessary, a disability attorney can represent individuals and their service animal rights in court, filing lawsuits to seek compensation for damages and enforce their rights under disability and anti-discrimination laws.

Discrimination against individuals with service animals can take many forms, and there are some variations in regulations depending on the situation. A disability attorney can explain how various government agencies may differ in applying rules regarding service animals.

Consult a special needs planning lawyer if you are denied access to businesses or other establishments despite having the legal right to be accompanied by your service animal. Attorneys in this field can also assist if you are experiencing housing, employment discrimination, or public transportation discrimination. Partner with them to understand your disability rights as they relate to your service animal. Find a qualified special needs planning attorney near you today.

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