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The ADA, Service Animals, & Places of Business: Know Your Rights!

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The summer season means that people with disabilities will be exploring public venues within and outside of their communities.  If you use a service animal, your lifeline to independence and safety, may not be welcomed by certain businesses.  It is imperative to know your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in order to identify and report discrimination you may experience at such venues.

This year, I have read many headlining stories about the discrimination those who utilize service animals endured from privately-owned public establishments, such as restaurants.  One such incident occurred earlier this year in Mooresville, North Carolina, where a disabled veteran was denied service at a restaurant because of his service dog.  Benjamin Wardrid, a veteran who served in the Iraq War, experienced his first taste of discrimination as someone with a disability who uses a service animal.  Wardrid was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, upon returning home from serving in the U.S. Army.  “Beau,” Wardrid’s service dog, assists in ameliorating the symptoms of PTSD Wardrid may experience in his day-to-day life.

When Wardrid was refused service at a local restaurant because of Beau, he knew that his rights had been violated, and he and Beau returned to the restaurant the following day accompanied by two police officers.  During the second visit, Wardrid and Beau were finally allowed in, and Wardrid was served.  The owner of the restaurant provided an off-camera statement that he has had “bad experiences” with service animals in the past.

The restaurant owner’s lackluster excuse as to why he prevented Wardrid and Beau from accessing his establishment shows the ignorance many business owners have about their obligations under the ADA, and understanding the purpose of service animals.

What the ADA Says about Service Animals:

The ADA clearly outlines privately-own businesses’ responsibilities that serve the general population when it comes to service animals:

Privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.

The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.

The ADA defines a service animal as:

Any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.  Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself.

(Excerpts from the ADA’s Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business webpage.)

The ADA plainly states that a service animal is NOT a pet.  When a service animal is assisting its owner, they are considered to be “working.”  Though some people may not be aware, it is discouraged to pet or stroke a service animal while working (especially if wearing a harness); to do so distracts the animal who has been trained to provide a service.

Educating Business Owners & Yourself about the ADA & Service Animals:

The ADA also has a frequently asked questions page about this matter, and I decided to select a few question and answer statements from the page with a twofold agenda:  inform those who use service animals about their rights, and educate business owners so they would not offend service animal owners or violate the mandate.  The key “take home points” within each response will be in bold.

How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?

A:  Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability. However, an individual who is going to a restaurant or theater is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability. Therefore, such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.

Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.

What must I do when an individual with a service animal comes to my business?

A:  The service animal must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.

I have always had a clearly posted “no pets” policy at my establishment. Do I still have to allow service animals in?

A:  Yes. A service animal is not a pet. The ADA requires you to modify your “no pets” policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. This does not mean you must abandon your “no pets” policy altogether but simply that you must make an exception to your general rule for service animals.

My county health department has told me that only a guide dog has to be admitted. If I follow those regulations, am I violating the ADA?

A:  Yes, if you refuse to admit any other type of service animal on the basis of local health department regulations or other state or local laws. The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations.

I operate a private taxicab and I don’t want animals in my taxi; they smell, shed hair and sometimes have “accidents.” Am I violating the ADA if I refuse to pick up someone with a service animal?

A:  Yes. Taxicab companies may not refuse to provide services to individuals with disabilities. Private taxicab companies are also prohibited from charging higher fares or fees for transporting individuals with disabilities and their service animals than they charge to other persons for the same or equivalent service.

What if a service animal barks or growls at other people, or otherwise acts out of control?

A:  You may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from your facility when that animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, any service animal that displays vicious behavior towards other guests or customers may be excluded. You may not make assumptions, however, about how a particular animal is likely to behave based on your past experience with other animals. Each situation must be considered individually.

Although a public accommodation may exclude any service animal that is out of control, it should give the individual with a disability who uses the service animal the option of continuing to enjoy its goods and services without having the service animal on the premises.

(Excerpted from the ADA’s Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business webpage.)

When It Is All Said & Done:  

Though some of the information provided should be common sense or understood by all, sadly, that is further from the case.  People with disabilities are denied service and full participation in establishments utilized by the public each and every day in this country, and abroad.  Being uninformed of the law is no excuse to disobey it, especially when it infringes on the rights of a person to use a service or facility.  Business owners have to be knowledgeable about what their duties are when it comes to the laws, and people with disabilities have to speak out when their rights have been violated, whether intentionally or not.  2014 will mark the 24th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we are still fighting to “get in” and be treated as equal.  How much longer will the fight continue before the legislation is respected and followed, and we are given the opportunity to fully participate in all facets of society?

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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