Service animals are animals which are trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, only a dog or a miniature horse may be considered a service animal, though other states may allow other types of animals to be service animals. Monkeys, ferrets and other animals may be considered service animals in some states.
While people might often think of service animals as the guide dogs that might accompany a blind or visually impaired person, in reality service animals can provide assistance to people with a wide range of disabilities.
For example, service animals might help someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, alerting them to the presence of people or sounds. They might help a wheelchair user by pulling them, retrieving items they can't reach, opening doors, turning lights on and off, and more. Service animals can assist people with epilepsy and seizure disorders, alerting them to an oncoming seizure or helping them if they're having a seizure. Service animals can provide balance and stability for people with mobility limitations, helping lift them up off the floor. They can provide a calming influence on children with autism and other developmental disabilities.
An important point to remember is that a service animal is not a pet and should not be treated as such. For example, if a restaurant, clinic or public park has a "no pet" policy, this must be modified to allow for the service animal to accompany its owner. Additionally, people should not be allowed to pet or play with a service animal while they are working.
Business owners often have a lot of questions about service animals, such as "Do I have to let service animals in my business?", "How do I know it's a service animal and not a pet?" and "What if the dog is barking or being disruptive?"
The key thing to remember is that service animals must be allowed in places of business. Service animals are also allowed on airplanes, trains, buses and taxicabs; no additional fees or charges can be demanded for this access. Though a business or public entity must allow an individual to be accompanied by a service animal, they can ask the following questions:
Is this animal required because of a disability?
What task has this animal been trained to perform?
They cannot, however, ask questions about the nature or extent of the individual's disability. For example, asking a wheelchair user, "What happened to you? How did you end up in that wheelchair?" is not permissible.
It can be confusing for business owners when it comes to determining whether an animal is a service animal or a pet, but there are some important things to keep in mind. While some service animals wear vests or harnesses identifying them as a trained service animal, this is not required under the law. There is no specific training or certification required, and in fact an individual can train their own dog to become their service animal. Many people do, however, obtain their animals from agencies who specialize in training them for particular purposes.
Though a vest isn't required, the animal must be leashed, harnessed or tethered. The only exceptions to this requirement are if the owner can't use the leash or tether because of their disability, or if it interferes with the dog performing its tasks. In that case, the owner must control the dog through voice commands or hand signals.
And, while service animals must be allowed in places of business, the right is not absolute. If the animal isn't housebroken, or the owner can't control it, the animal does not have to be allowed to remain. Additionally, in places where legitimate safety requirements of the facility demand it, a service animal can be excluded, such as in a hospital operating room.
Though businesses aren't responsible for the care and feeding of service animals generally, in the case of emergency shelters, the operators must make provisions for service animals to accompany their owners.
An individual with a disability can't be required to pay a fee in order to have their service animal accompany them into any place of business. Nor can they be required to purchase a seat for the animal on a plane, bus or train; they can, however be required to pay for damage done by their service animal.
Consult an attorney in your state for state specific laws and regulations.
Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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