Don't Shed on Me!

The students in my disability law class were expecting to have a guest speaker that evening. But they were surprised and delighted when not only did two guests enter the classroom, one of them was of the canine persuasion.
I believe the best way to teach the law is for students to see it in action. And that evening, they learned about an organization called “Canine Companions for Independence,” a nonprofit group that trains dogs to assist people with disabilities. As the students observed, Eliza the service dog was able to help her owner, a wheelchair user, in a variety of ways. Among other things, she retrieved coins and other small objects, opened the door and even pulled her owner’s wheelchair.
Service dogs (or miniature horses in rare cases) are not pets. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically recognizes these animals as “accommodations” for people with disabilities. This means these animals must be allowed to accompany their owners wherever they go, as long as they do not create an undue hardship or cause a fundamental alteration in the business or establishment they visit (an example would be if the animal was unruly, hostile or not housebroken).
In contrast, the press today is full of stories about “emotional support animals” boarding airplanes with their owners and creating much confusion, havoc, mockery and sometimes even injury to both animals and humans. I was at the airport over the holidays, and it was amazing the number of small, cuddly dogs I saw being toted on and off the planes by their owners. Not wanting to appear too obnoxious, I put on a smile and asked several people if their little companions were service animals. “No,” was the inevitable answer. “She’s an emotional support animal.”
Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are often very helpful to people with disabilities. These animals are not trained to provide a specific service, but they can soothe and provide comfort to their owners. And even though the ADA does not recognize ESA as legally protected accommodators, there are other disability laws that do. Among them are the Fair Housing Act (which protects people with disabilities in their dwellings and the Air Carrier Access Act (which protects people with disabilities on airplanes).
So, the confusion, particularly when it comes to flying, is exactly who is protected by the law and how far do the protections go. As the number of passengers with all manner of animals has ballooned in the past couple of years, air carriers are starting to look more like exotic animal refuges than means of conveyance. And there has justifiably been suspicion about whether the owners have legitimate disabilities or are just trying to save the carrier fees.
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Helen Russon

Helen Russon is an (inactive) attorney who teaches disability law and has investigated many civil rights cases with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. She has also written many articles on disability issues and done other volunteer work with her local chapter. As a person living with MS, Helen wants to share both her expertise and experience. She is careful to emphasize, however, that nothing she writes is intended to be legal advice. It is general information to help point readers in the right direction.