Senator Reeves presented a bill recently that would offer some greater protection to individuals with disabilities who use service animals. The senator was especially concerned about the number of veterans who are returning from combat with serious injuries and may be able to utilize service animals to assist with new physical and mental challenges. Some veterans complained to him that they are not treated well by businesses when they try to enter with their animals.
“Wait a second,” another senator challenged him, “you mean that if I own a restaurant and don’t want dogs to come in, I can’t make them leave? What if the health department fines me?”
Decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is still much misunderstanding about service animals. Under the ADA, a public accommodation can not deny entry to a person with a disability who uses a service dog, unless the dog is out of control or dangerous. The business can not require “proof” of training or proof of disability. The business can ask what tasks or work the dog does and whether that is needed because of a disability. But the inquiry must end there. Even if the business has a “no pets” policy, they must permit a service dog to enter.
There is good reason for the confusion, however. The ADA originally protected all service animals, but it was recently revised to protect only service dogs, as well as miniature horses that do work for people with disabilities. Other federal laws, like the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carriers Act, offer protection to service animals, without limit to dogs. Adding to that confusion, Virginia law protects service dogs, even making it a misdemeanor to deny access to a service dog.
Senator Reeves eventually withdrew his proposal, promising to work on the idea before the next session of the General Assembly. But it was clear to everyone in the room that there is a need for greater education about the use of service animals.