To serve and protect

Today’s article is new territory for me. Not because I’ve never heard the issue, far from, but because I had to do some research to really find out the laws which pertain to the particular topic.

I don’t know how many of us have ever come into contact with a service animal but they provide a great and necessary service to those who have a disability. I’ve never seen them here in Barbados and don’t even know if we have laws relating to such but the information I found on them is pretty interesting.

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”. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for themselves. Guide dogs are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. This is the type of service animal with which most people are familiar; but there are service animals which assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Some examples include:

* Alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds.

* Pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments.

* Assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance.

* Alerting and protecting someone who is having a seizure.

* Reminding a person with a mental challenge to take their prescribed medication.

* Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack.

One thing which needs to be understood is that a service animal is not a pet. These animals are workers in every sense of the word. As a matter of fact, they are times more professional and dedicated in most instances than humans. They approach their work with the utmost dedication and have been trained to the highest standards.

Some people usually ask since they are unsure, how to identify a service animal as opposed to just a pet. Some of them wear special collars and harnesses which is an indication that something is very different. However, if you are not sure it would be wise to ask the individual about the animal’s status and if they are required to assist with a disability.

Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. Sometimes the owners of these animals carry documentation which states the purpose of the animal. However, it is highly unlikely that they would have this proof 100 per cent of the time.

As far as the rights of these individuals with these disabilities are concerned, they are things which are acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to businesses and establishments. For example:

* 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.

* Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

* A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

* Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

* People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons, treated less favourably than other patrons, or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. In addition, if a business requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.

* If a business such as a hotel normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.

* Staff are not required to provide care or food for a service animal.

What is clear to me is that there is no getting around respecting the rights of the disabled on any level. No matter the circumstance, their rights must be adhered to and protected, and they must be treated equally. No excuses!

Reference: US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, ADA 2010 Revised Requirements

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