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The ADA, Service Animals, and Places of Business

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The article I wrote in January about a restaurant owner’s refusal to serve a veteran with a service dog raised questions about how businesses are to respond to people with disabilities who use service animals.  Today, I wanted to share what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have to say about service animals in privately owned businesses that serve the public.

The ADA has a frequently asked questions page about this matter, and I decided to select a few question and answer statements from the page that business owners need to know in order to not offend those who use service animals 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.

All excerpts are courtesy of the Frequently Asked Questions page about service animals and businesses.

Though some of the statements I highlighted may seem to be ones that should be understood by all, they are not. 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 ignorant of the law is no excuse when breaking 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 responsibilities are when it comes to the law, and people with disabilities have to speak out when their rights have been violated, whether intentionally or not.

Every week, I come across stories of people with disabilities, regardless of their ability, experiencing discrimination at alarming rates.  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 image:  Courtesy of Wet Noses Dog Treats.)

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Disability and Advocacy Staff Writer for Social Work Helper, and she is also the Founder of Ramp Your Voice! In addition to being a Disability Rights Consultant and Advocate, Vilissa seeks to propel the faces and voices of people of color with disabilities both within the disability community and in the general public. Vilissa can be contacted via email at Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com, or by visiting the Ramp Your Voice! website at http://www.rampyourvoice.com/.

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