A service animal is a type of animal that has received special training in order to be assigned to a person who has a disability. The purpose of a service animal is to help a disabled person to live their life as independently as possible.
Service animals were once primarily associated with people who were blind or had severe vision impairments. In present day, however, service animals are now used to assist people with many different kinds of disabilities, including physical, emotional, and psychological conditions.
In addition, a federal law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is the main source of law that sets the guidelines for how to determine service animal eligibility. As such, it is important to note that therapy and/or companion animals are not necessarily considered to be service animals under the rules of the ADA.
What Rights Do Service Dog Owners Have?
According to the provisions of the ADA, people who are assigned service dogs have a right to bring them into public places. This is true even if the business or location does not generally permit pets. Such places must adjust their “no animals” policies to comply with ADA standards.
The ADA also requires public places to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Aside from amending their no pet policies to make an exception for service dogs, reasonable accommodations may include:
- Permitting disabled employees time off from work to bring their service dog to the vet;
- Allowing a person with more than one service dog to escort them in a public place; and
- Letting tenants live with service dogs in “no pet” housing.
What is Considered a “Public Place”?
The ADA defines the phrase “public place” as any location where the general public is invited or permitted to be. Thus, public places may include restaurants, grocery stores, schools, shopping centers, hotels, and medical offices.
The ADA even allows service dogs to accompany disabled persons on various modes of public transportation, such as airplanes and buses.
When Would a Service Animal Not Be Allowed?
The definition of a service animal can be found in Title III of the ADA. It states that a service animal must be trained specifically to do work that a person with a disability cannot do for themselves. These tasks may be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental in nature.
For example, a service animal may provide guidance for a person whose vision is impaired, alert its owner to sounds if the owner is hard of hearing, pull a wheelchair, alert help if their owner is having a seizure, or assist someone with limited mobility by retrieving objects, such as a phone or medication.
Regardless of whether the animal is trained or untrained, domestic or wild, it will not be considered a service animal under the ADA if it cannot perform these specific tasks.
Where Are Service Animals Allowed?
Generally speaking, service animals are typically allowed anywhere that people are allowed. As previously mentioned, people with disabilities who rely on service animals may bring them into restaurants, hospitals, public transportation, stores, parks, and so on.
Additionally, Title III of the ADA requires employers and landlords to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities of any kind, which involves complying with the following guidelines:
- Reasonable accommodations means that the modifications must improve on a work or home environment for the disabled individual, but the cost of improvements must be reasonable. Also, these modifications do not have to involve major changes, but just enough that individuals are given an equal opportunity to do things like perform their jobs successfully and enjoy their living spaces.
- Service animals are included in the definition of reasonable accommodation, but a person with a disability must still prove “undue hardship” in order to receive permission to have a service animal in the workplace or in a residence that otherwise does not allow pets.
- Finally, “undue hardship” means that it would be difficult or impossible for the individual with a disability to perform the job or maintain an adequate standard of health, life, and wellness without the presence of their service animal.
On the other hand, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has previously stated that there is no specific definition for service animals when it comes to the workplace. In other words, this means that employers will have to consider allowing service animals for medical conditions that are more therapeutic or emotionally supportive in nature.
However, if an animal is found to be disruptive or if it is not needed to perform specific tasks that are related to the employee’s disability, then the employer will not be required to admit the service animal in the workspace.
On a final note, it may be best to review particular state laws because there are some states that have passed regulations to allow certain service animals in the workplace.
What Kind of Accommodations Am I Entitled To?
As discussed above, public places generally permit service dogs in their facilities unless there is a specific safety concern or if allowing access to service dogs would fundamentally change the nature of the public place.
In most cases, public places are normally required to adjust their policies, practices, and procedures to accommodate service dogs.
For instance, in the state of California, it is not necessary that a zoo allow a service dog to be near an exhibit where there is no physical barrier separating the service dog and the zoo animal, but the zoo must provide kennels to shelter the dog until the owner can pick it up later.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Service Animal Issues?
If you have been informed by either a medical doctor or other certified professional that you require the assistance of a service animal to help you with a disability, and you have been denied the right to bring your service animal to a place covered by ADA guidelines, then you should contact a local employment lawyer immediately.
An experienced employment lawyer will be able to advise you about your rights, can help you prepare a case if you have a claim, and can provide representation in court or during settlement negotiations.