A federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requires reasonable accommodations of disabilities in both the workplace and places of “public accommodation.” The use of service animals can be considered a reasonable accommodation of a disability under certain circumstances. The rules are different depending on whether a workplace or a place of public accommodation is involved. This column will focus only on the rules for places of public accommodation.
Places of public accommodation include places where the public is allowed to go, such as stores, restaurants, hotels and apartments. Service animals are defined as either dogs or miniature horses that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. People are often surprised that a miniature horse can be considered a service animal under the law, but people with disabilities may choose miniature horses as an alternative to dogs for various reasons including religious observance and allergies to dogs. Miniature horses can be trained to perform many of the same tasks as dogs. They range in height from 24 to 34 inches measured to the shoulders, and weigh about 70 to 100 pounds. The ADA regulations have other specific rules about whether a miniature horse can be accommodated in a facility.
It is important to distinguish between a service animal and a comfort, therapy, or emotional support animal. A service animal has been trained to provide a task directly related to a person’s disability. A comfort, therapy, or emotional support animal is not protected under the ADA, although they might be protected under the laws of some states (but not Virginia).
Examples of service animals that must be allowed into public accommodations under the ADA include:
• hearing dogs that are trained to alert handlers to important sounds such as alarms and doorbells
• guide dogs that help those who are blind or visually impaired navigate safely
• seizure alert animals that let their handlers know of impending seizures and/or guard their handlers during seizure activity
• allergen alert animals that let their handlers know of foods or other substances that could be dangerous (such as peanuts).
Under the ADA, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.
Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the person must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.
When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. The disabled person is not required to carry any documentation such as proof that the animal has been trained or certified.
There are some additional rules relating to service animals in the housing context and airplanes. The U.S. Department of Justice has a helpful summary on its website at www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.html and a more detailed FAQ at www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html. Those resources can provide more specific information if needed.
By © John E. Falcone, 2019