Service dogs give people with disabilities more independence and provide life-changing benefits. Unfortunately, we experience far too many service dog access issues in public places these days.
The law that governs access for service dogs is called the ADA. This is short for The Americans with Disabilities Act. The core law was implemented by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and by default, all private and public places, buildings, and businesses in the United States are required to comply with its provisions in all aspects. This is so people with disabilities don’t face service dog access issues.
Some Exceptions Exist
There are exceptions to this rule for certain government agencies who either can implement the ADA as provided by the DOJ or are allowed to make some modifications. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is allowed to implement some things differently to make security screenings possible. If we go through an airport to catch a plane we will be covered by different ADA implementations depending on where we are in the airport.
When we enter the building the DOJ version of the ADA applies. In the security line, the DHS version of the ADA applies. On moving walkways, elevators, escalators, and trams the ADA version of the Department of Transportation (DOT) applies and on the airplane itself (not the ramp to it) the ADA version of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) applies. It can get complicated and there are certainly some service dog access issues we all experience in airports.
The Law Is The Law
But, for private businesses like restaurants, hospitals, and so on, it’s straightforward. They all must comply with the ADA as provided by the Department of Justice. The DOJ also doesn’t take lightly to ADA rule violations. Businesses that don’t follow the ADA are fined and some business owners get arrested for their actions. It is illegal to interfere with a service dog at work and create service dog access issues. Just like they need wheelchair ramps, they need to accommodate service dogs.
- Access Rights (Section 365.5): Denial of access is a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $2500.
- Intentional Interference (Section 365.6): This is also a misdemeanor, punishable with county jail up to 6 months and a fine between $1500-$2500, or both.
- Service Dog Fraud (Section 365.7): This is also a misdemeanor, punishable with county jail up to 6 months and a fine up to $1000, or both.
Given the severity of the matter, one would think businesses make a good effort to train their employees to not end up on the wrong side of the law and avoid service dog access issues.
However, my experiences have been mixed and most disabled people I know have similar stories. Here are two recent experiences.
A Hospital Visit
In June 2021, I had a follow-up appointment with one of my specialist doctors. We had been to this location and doctor before and never had any problems but what happened that day was surprising, shocking, and completely unacceptable.
I went to the visit in my wheelchair as my legs had been unstable. I brought my cardiac support service dog Storm and my partner as the designated service dog handler as I couldn’t handle Storm myself that day. None of this should have been an issue as the ADA covers this clearly, but that day it was.
When we arrived, I was in my chair, Storm working to my left and my partner holding Storm’s leash, walking to the left of him. My partner walked with Storm ahead to the check-in counter, as there was not enough room at the COVID-19 screening station for all of us to be there. He checked me in and was told that Storm could accompany me inside, but my partner could not due to COVID restrictions.
And So It Begins
My partner informed the staff that he is the service dog handler and needs to accompany us also. She stated this was their policy. My partner stated what the law was. She said she was not authorized to decide this matter and we should go to the reception and ask to speak with the office manager. This situation was a bit frustrating but undoubtedly appropriate if the staff is unsure what to do. So that is what we did.
At the reception, the process was repeated. My partner stated again that he is the service dog handler and needs to accompany us. The receptionist restated their policy. My partner restated the law and that we would like to speak with the office manager. We were asked to take a seat in the waiting room, and the office manager would come to see us.
After about five minutes, an office worker showed up to see us. She wore a green nurse’s outfit while the nurses working with patients all wore blue outfits, so we were unsure if she was an actual nurse or office staff. In any case, my partner asked if he was now cleared to enter as we were still expecting the office manager to talk to us. She said she didn’t know and went back in to check. Several minutes later, she came back and stated my partner could enter this time, but only my service dog and I would be permitted in the future. We informed her that this is certainly not the case, and as the service dog handler, he was always allowed to come along.
The Law Is The Law
She once again stated their policy, to which my partner responded. “Your policy doesn’t invalidate the law.” Yet, she kept arguing. Other people in the waiting room noticed, and we overheard another patient stating, “This is not right.” The office worker was frustrated that we dared to contradict her but wanted to get us out of the waiting room and capitulated for the moment. She probably noticed the other patients taking our side as well. The law is the law. It’s not up for debate.
Once inside the exam room, she kept arguing with us about their COVID policies. By now, we had stated five times that my partner was the service dog handler and not just there for moral support. A medical nurse stepped in, interrupted the conversation, and wanted to focus on prepping me. When I talked to my partner about this unacceptable treatment, she felt addressed and injected herself into the conversation, complaining that I supposedly raised my voice at her; the interaction did not improve from there. At this point, my heart was racing, Storm was alerting, and I was near a panic attack. All this is due to office and nursing staff not understanding the ADA law.
It’s A Staff Training Issue
After the nurse left, the office manager showed up to talk to us. I was now in tears from the anxiety, and Storm and my partner had to help me regain composure. Events like this take a heavy, psychological, and physical toll on my body for up to several days after. The office manager got to witness my precarious state. Once I was able to, we explained the sequence of events, and she apologized to us. She was in complete understanding that the law requires the service dog handler to be allowed access and said they would educate their staff on this matter. The office manager spent a fair amount of time with us, and she was understanding and great.
When the doctor came, he also apologized for what had happened. He felt bad about this incident as well.
When you need specialists, moving around to new doctors is not easy. Luckily, this wasn’t an issue on two subsequent visits.
Lunch with a Friend
In April 2022 I and my partner met with a friend of ours for lunch at a great Mexican restaurant in Wildomar. I was able to walk that day and had my service dog Storm with me. He was wearing his service dog vest with a guide handle for me.
When we were seated the hostess told us that they don’t allow dogs in the restaurant. My partner told her Storm is a service dog. She replied: “Service dogs are required to wear a vest.” My partner said: “No they are not, but he is actually wearing one.” She then replied: “The vest must have written ‘service dog’ on it.” To which my partner responded: “No, they don’t, but his vest actually says ‘service dog’ and we are done now. Send your manager if you would like to have a further discussion.”
A Comedy Show At A Restaurant
This conversation would have actually been comical if it wasn’t so serious. My partner can just put them straight. Confrontation is not a problem for him and he has no problem standing up for me and my service dog. But, if I would have been by myself, this interaction could have triggered an anxiety or panic attack. All because the restaurant staff was poorly trained on the ADA. We could have reported them. They would have received a warning or a small fine. We didn’t but we could have. Businesses must understand that they can get into a lot of trouble by not following the ADA laws.
The ADA Regulations for Service Dogs are very clear on this. Service dogs are not required to wear a vest or special identifiers of any kind.