ADA and Service Animals

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Title III of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandates that persons with disabilities accompanied by service animals be allowed access with their service animals into places of public accommodation, including restaurants, public transportation, schools and healthcare facilities. There is often confusion on exactly what qualifies an animal as a “service” animal, when compared to an emotional support animal or regular pet.

The ADA defines a service animal as any dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, cannot be considered service animals. Service animals are not pets, nor are they emotional support animals, whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, or to promote emotional well-being.

The ADA also clarifies how to determine if a presenting animal is a service animal. The law stipulates that you may ask: Is this animal required because of a disability? If the answer is affirmative, you may then ask: What is the animal trained to do?

The law does not permit you to ask about the person’s disability, require the individual to produce medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation, or ask that the animal demonstrate its ability to perform its work or task. If the individual is able to provide reasonable answers to the above questions, you must allow the service animal to accompany them in all areas of the facility.

Allergies or fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to individuals with service animals. For medical practices, it is important to remember that this applies not only to patients with service animals, but also to other individuals who might need to accompany patients to their appointments (e.g., the parent of a minor patient relies on a service dog).

If the individual informs you that the animal is not a service animal, or the person cannot specify what task(s) the animal can perform, you are not required to permit the animal into the premises under the ADA. Additionally, you are permitted to refuse or remove a verified service animal if the animal relieves itself in the facility, or if the animal is out of control and the patient or handler does not take effective action to bring it under control. In these situations, you must give the individual who uses the service animal the option of proceeding with medical services without the animal on the premises.

If a service animal accompanies an individual to an appointment, the animal can be excluded from certain areas of the facility if its presence interferes with legitimate safety requirements (e.g., a surgical suite in which a sterile field is required). Service animals must also be under continuous, direct supervision and control of their handler. Feeding, watering, and toileting the service animal, including regular walks outside the facility, are solely the responsibility of the owner or support person. If the patient cannot care for the animal and does not have a support person to help, you should discuss alternatives with the person in an effort to find a workable solution.

Monetary penalties and civil liability arising from ADA violations can be expensive – up to $75,000 in fines for a first offense, and the potential for exemplary civil damages in a lawsuit. Thus, it is important to avoid any ADA violations that might result in a patient complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, or an ADA lawsuit. MIEC recommends that practices establish a written office policy and staff training to ensure they respond appropriately when patients are accompanied by animals.

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