Advocating for the Rights of Disabled People with Service Dogs

Educating our community to ensure the civil liberties of people with disabilities and service dogs are met.

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OUR MISSION

Every day, Americans with disabilities are denied their rights with their service dogs. We are here to educate our society so no disabled American experiences these violations of their civil liberties.

Our mission at Justice Speaks is to educate our society on the appropriate response to service dogs and their owners with medical conditions whether they have visible disabilities or not.

TRAINING

We train students to increase awareness of the role of service dogs and how they can support and respect service dog owners.

WORKPLACE COMPLIANCE

We train employers, employees and staff members in how to ensure their workplaces are in compliance with all rules and regulations about service dogs.

RESOURCES

We provide resources for all audiences to better understand service dogs and their handlers.

Service Dogs Basics

Emotional support dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA. They may be trained for a specific owner, but they are not trained for specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability, and this is the main difference between ESAs and service dogs. 

However, if an ESA meets the criteria for qualification under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), you are entitled to live with your emotional support animal free of charge and deposits, even if your building doesn’t allow pets. The FHA also prevents housing providers from imposing breed and weight restrictions on your ESA. Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords are allowed to request proof of the need for an emotional support animal in the form of a recommendation letter written by a licensed healthcare professional.  We recommend discussing your legal options with a civil rights attorney and/or licensed healthcare provider. 

“Disability” is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including people with a history of such an impairment, and people perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.

Service Dogs are protected by the federal law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA guarantees that all people with disabilities have the legal right to use their assistance animal in all areas that are open to the general public.

According to the ADA, employees at a business “are not allowed to request any documentation” for a service dog. The American Disability Act (ADA) prohibits both public and private businesses from discriminating against people with disabilities.

As a service dog owner, you must keep your service dog under control, well behaved and the dog must be housebroken. 

Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. The ADA states that people with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program. However, the dog must already be trained before it can be taken into public places. Some State or local laws cover animals that are still in training. We recommend discussing your options with your local authorities. 

Beware of individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and 

The Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

Emotional support animals have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, and do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.

Important note: The ADA does NOT require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.

A business with a “no pets” policy may not deny entry to a person with a service animal. Service animals are working animals, not pets. So, although a “no pets” policy is legal, it does not allow a business to exclude service animals. A public place can ask only two questions to determine if that individual’s dog is a service dog: whether the dog is required because of a disability, and what work the dog is trained to perform. As a business owner, you cannot request documentation or service dog vests, ID tags or specific harnesses. To deny access to a service dog could result in a lawsuit or complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice. Do not attempt to deny a service animal. 

However, as excerpted from the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations § 36.202, there are two instances cited in federal law where a business may exclude a Service Dog:

  • The Service Dog is out of control and the handler isn’t doing anything about it
  • The Service Dog isn’t housebroken and urinates or defecates inappropriately

If a Service Dog team is asked to leave due to the dog’s behavior, the business must provide the unaccompanied handler the opportunity to obtain goods or services. Only the dog can be excluded from the premises. If a dog’s behavior infringes on the ability of other patrons to enjoy a safe, routine experience similar to one they would experience without a Service Dog on-site, then a business may be perfectly within their right legally to ask the team to leave.

The first thing you must do is try to remain calm and remind the denier that you have a right under the ADA to bring a service dog inside due to your disability. Individuals who believe that they have been illegally denied access or service because they use service animals may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. Individuals also have the right to file a private lawsuit in Federal court charging the entity with discrimination under the ADA.

It is important to try to document as much information as you can during the time of entry denial. You will need to provide as much information as possible including the name of the person(s) denying your entry, the date/time, what was said, were there witnesses etc. Ideally a video or recording of the denial will provide necessary proof. 

However if your service dog has been misbehaving, you are unable to control them and/or they have relieved themselves inappropriately, you can and will be denied access. 

Assuming your service dog has exhibited only good behavior, if an individual challenges you, you may respond calmly with “it is my right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to bring a service dog into this establishment” You may quote the ADA Statute 24-34-803 if you can commit it to memory. 

Under ADA rules, in situations where it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal, only two questions may be asked: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? 

The reply to question (2) must affirm that the service dog has been trained to take specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.

When you see someone with a service dog, even if you’re on a crowded sidewalk or in a narrow hallway, avoid eye contact with the dog and give them a wide berth by either walking out toward the curb or even stepping aside for them to pass. Understand that the service dog is working and should not be distracted under any circumstances. The service dog must remain steadfast and focused on its owner, if any distractions cause the dog to lose that focus, the outcome for the owner could be devastating. If you are acquaintances with the service dog owner, you may ask the owner for permission before approaching the dog but again, understand that the dog is working and not just a pet.

OUR FOUNDING STORY

Cathy Burds, Founder of Justice Speaks (doing business as Positive Impact 2) first experienced major trauma at the age of 3, when she was already suffering from hearing loss. The trauma she endured was imparted by an extended family member and though she was too young to understand the term sexual assault. Finding resources to support her healing was frustrating as there was so little out there. And as she learned about the clinics, therapists, medical providers and organizations all ready to help, she also saw how expensive they were and how hard it was to find the right resources for her particular experience. Cathy wondered: if she is having a difficult time finding care even though she is fortunate to be able to afford them, how are others less fortunate able to deal with their trauma? 

In 2015, Cathy found an opportunity to address her PTSD with the support of a service dog who has helped her become more independent, Justice, a Bernese mountain dog. Unfortunately, Cathy and Justice experienced discrimination almost immediately when they worked together.  Now, Cathy fights to educate the public about Justice. In Cathy’s words “Yes, it’s a service dog, and yes, it’s my right.”

Cathy created a nonprofit, Positive Impact 2, with a name that symbolized the double impact of trauma that passes on to other generations. The number 2 represents the effects of trauma on the offspring of survivors. She wasn’t the only member of her family suffering through this healing process; her father, a veteran, didn’t have resources to support him with his PTSD.

To learn more, Cathy completed an intensive course through Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. There she learned more about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how she had protected rights as a citizen with a disability and a service dog owner.

In 2021, Cathy Burds and Dr. Sara Tarr of Clear Alignment created the Justice Speaks curriculum to support owners of service dogs. As of February 2022, Justice Speaks has transitioned to doing business as the 501c3 nonprofit Positive Impact 2. Justice Speaks aims to connect people with access to service dog related resources, and build a path to a world without discrimination.

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