Service animals aren’t pets, but tools for the disabled
A recent KGMB news story concerning the problem faced by a woman denied access to Tripler Army Medical Center because of her service animal highlights the continued confusion about laws that govern service animals for people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. Animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified, and identification cannot be required. Guide dogs are one of the most familiar types of service animals. But there are other types, such as a signal animal, which alerts people with hearing impairments to sounds; a service animal, which helps pull someone in a wheelchair or carries or retrieves items for a person with a mobility impairment; or a seizure alert dog, which alerts a person with epilepsy of an impending seizure.
Other laws, such as the Fair Housing Act or the Air Carriers Access Act, have similar provisions for a person with a disability. The FHA, in particular, is more generous than the ADA in allowing many persons with emotional disabilities to receive similar protection in their home if they have comfort or therapy animals, while the ADA does not cover therapy or comfort animals. The FHA also permits landlords and condominium associations to require medical documentation, while the ADA does not. This is because one's residence is a place where a person spends much more time than a transient visit to a store, restaurant or government building, and an animal's impact in the residence will be greater.
A service animal is not a pet, and modifications to "no pet" policies must be implemented for legitimate service animals. It is important to remember that "rights" under any of these laws are not for the animal, per se, but for the person with a disability to be accompanied by their animal. A hospital or senior center, as an example, might have a program with comfort animals for therapy that goes beyond any civil rights law. However, that same animal's owner might not be able to take the comfort animal into a restaurant.
There also are limitations to complete access as well as responsibilities of the person with a disability. A hospital may impose limitations in the operating room or intensive care unit, where contagious disease is an issue, but not in a public waiting room. Any establishment also may require a person with a disability to tend to their animal's needs for relief and appropriate nondisruptive behavior, such as eating food off the table in a restaurant. The establishment may not require a deposit or impose a surcharge even if deposits are routinely required for pets. However, the establishment may charge the customer if their service animal causes damage.
With the growing independence and mobility of people with disabilities in society, the issue of access with service animals will only increase. Sensitivity and recognition of these rights is important. At the same time, there might be abuse by people who simply want to take their pets with them everywhere. Although the laws are clear, on-site situations will vary and not always be so clear. Individuals, businesses or organizations seeking clarification may call the Disability and Communication Access Board at (808) 586-8121 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Francine Wai is executive director of the state Disability and Communication Access Board.