Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Massachusetts Colleges Push Back Against Service Dogs, Violate ADA
During last year’s Christmas season, we took a shopping trip to Fifth Avenue in New York City. Somewhere on the upper floors of the high-quality Bergdorf Goodman store, I rounded a corner and came “face to face” with a beautiful Portuguese Water Dog. Being a dog lover, I know I broke out in a smile from ear to ear as I dropped to my knees and greeted him.
This incident marks a growing trend I have noticed whereby dogs are being accepted more and more readily into the normal, daily human environment, and it is a trend I strongly support and enjoy. In the past, there was an assumption of “No Dogs Allowed!” in many business places, often justified by scientifically unsupportable fears about hygiene. And yet, when I walked into Home Depot and then a supermarket few years ago with a rejected baby lamb wrapped in a towel, no one uttered a negative word (after all, little lambs are cute…) A growing number of nursing homes and hospitals have recognized the therapeutic nature of animals, and have permitted access to pets by residents.
Much of the credit for this growing acceptance goes to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted in an effort to remove obstacles and improve access to services, offices, and business places that the non-disabled take for granted. Under the law, places of public accommodation – including office buildings, college campuses, supermarkets, apartment buildings, and just about any place that opens its doors to the public to conduct business – must have modified practices and procedures to permit the use of service animals by disabled people.
A year ago, the definition of “service animal” was revised in ADA regulations specifically to “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Years ago, many people equated a service dog only with a “Seeing Eye Dog” for the blind, but the definitions of “disability“ – and thus the roles that service dogs perform – have greatly expanded. Service dogs” include dogs trained to provide support for a wide variety of disabilities, including sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, mental and physical disabilities. These dogs ‘sense’ and alert their owners of seizure onsets, open doors, pull wheelchairs, pick up and carry items, and prevent loss of emotional control. Unfortunately, one of the most confusing areas of the law is that the ADA does not protect an animal whose primary role is to provide “emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship,” or those animals normally classified as ‘therapy dogs.’ The difference is blurry: therapy dogs are also often trained to perform tasks that parallel “service dogs,” which are covered by the law.
A business owner who questions whether or not a dog is a service animal or “just” a pet is permitted under the ADA to ask only two questions:
“ Is the animal required because of a disability?”
“What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?”
If it is obvious to a casual observer what the animal is trained to do, even these two questions should not be asked. They are intimidating intrusions into the life of a disabled person who is seeking to gain access, and overcome obstacles, and they should not be made to defend or fight for their rights in each business.
In addition, businesses are prohibited from asking certain questions. They may not inquire about the nature or extent of the person’s disability. And they may not require proof of the service animal’s documentation, certification or training.
Nonetheless, a growing number of college campuses – particularly in Massachusetts – are doing just that. Similar to the Milton Hershey School’s (Pennsylvania) claim that they can refuse admittance to an HIV positive student (who is protected by the ADA) because ‘schools are different,’ a number of community colleges in Massachusetts have begun to cobble together ‘service dog policies’ that go far beyond what the law permits: they request that visitors “register” their animals with numerous offices; they request proof of certification and training; they request written confirmation of the animals vaccinations – none of which can be required by any place of public accommodation under the ADA.
In at least one college, a draft version of a policy which had been proposed by the administration actually required that the disabled answer inquiries posed not only by faculty and staff, but by fellow students as well: a full-scale invasion of privacy of the disabled using a service animal. This is precsiely the intimidation that the ADA was meant to curtail.
In addition, in spite of the constant use of rhetoric proclaiming that public colleges ‘provide access to higher education,’ these policies attempt to comply with only the absolute minimal ADA requirements by refusing to cover even trained, certified therapy dogs in their access policies.
These colleges - who so often see themselves as bastions of progressive thought - would do better to join the growing societal consensus that dogs in a ‘human’ environment provide more benefits than danger, and that the movement towards increasing access to public facilities for all people requires a less reactionary approach.