Not only is a dog considered man’s best friend, for folks like Daniel Hall they could possibly be the difference between life and death.
A five-year Army veteran from the Korean Defense mission, Hall can frequently be seen in Hillsville and around the county with Max, his service dog in training. Hall said he’s experienced misunderstandings with businesses in the area that are not aware of laws regarding service animals. To be fair, laws regarding service animals can be quite confusing, especially in Virginia, where state law actually conflicts with federal law.
For instance, the state of Virginia requires owners of service animals to display the training certificate of the animal. However, it is against federal law to require anyone with a service animal to show proof of the animal’s certification. It’s also unlawful for staff at restaurants and other businesses to ask about the person’s disability or to require medical documentation or special identification for the dog.
Virginia has its own laws regarding identification of service animals, which require them to be in a harness, backpack, or vest identifying the dog as a trained service dog. But according to Nancy Horton, an information specialist with the Mid-Atlantic American Disability Act Center, failure to follow Virginia’s identification requirements cannot impede access to people with service animals who are otherwise in compliance with federal ADA service animal laws. In other words, if a service animal’s status isn’t clear to a business owner or clerk, the business cannot turn the service animal or owner away.
“The Department of Justice is very clear,” Horton said. “You would be in violation of the American Disability Act (ADA) if you refuse to admit any other type of service animal on the basis of local health department regulations or other state or local laws. The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations.”
Under the ADA, businesses that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animal into all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. This federal law applies to all businesses open to the public. Businesses may ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform, but cannot require special ID cards for the animal or ask about the person’s disability.
A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his or her service animal from the premises unless the animal is out of control and the animal’s owner does not take effective action to control it, or if the animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others. Allergies and fear of animals are generally not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people with service animals. Violators of the ADA can be required to pay monetary damages and penalties.
According to Horton, the U.S. Department of Justice only allows businesses to legally ask two questions of service animal owners, and then only when it is not obvious what service an animal provides. The two permitted questions are:
• Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
• What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Hall recently acquired his service dog to help him with mobility issues due to a training accident and because of PTSD from torrential mudslides and flash floods he experienced while on duty in Korea. While most people think of service animals that serve the blind or deaf, they are more frequently being used today for all sorts of issues, some that are not as obvious.
“Half the time you can’t tell what the service animal is for, so I thought it might be a good idea to remind people you can’t base it off looks,” Hall said. “There’s one business in the area with a big sign that says service dogs are allowed with the proper paperwork. Well, the government clearly states a business may ask if the animal is a service animal or ask what the animal has been trained to perform, but they cannot require special ID cards for the animal or ask about the person’s disability. That may be an issue with businesses around here who are not accustomed with working with service animals.”
Hall said he’s not the only person in the area with a service animal. Knowing that people will be asking for paperwork and documentation that he is not required to show by law, Hall wants the public to be better informed of the actual laws in place.
“I am just trying to increase awareness. It protects people, too. I was run out of a business recently, and that is a potential lawsuit,” Hall said. “A lot of small businesses and places don’t know about these laws. With some people having PTSD, anger can be an issue sometimes, so I am trying to protect everybody around and let them know. Some people are breaking the law in regards to this and they don’t even know it.”
A list of frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA can be found at http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html online.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on [email protected]