Service Dog Owners Still Hounded Despite Change In Law

 In Advocacy, News and Current Events

Tony Gonzalez, The (Nashville) Tennessean 11:28 a.m. EST March 7, 2014


NASHVILLE — Tennessee law changed last year to make travel with service dogs easier – but if a law changes and few people know, has it really changed?

The new law aims to protect people with disabilities from having to show documentation about their disabilities or their service dogs when entering businesses. It’s a change that brought Tennessee in line with long-standing protections in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark
1990 federal law that gave equal standing in public accommodations to disabled people.

But some Tennesseans with disabilities continue to be asked for proof, forcing them to argue that the law is on their side. Attorneys at the Disability Law and Advocacy Center worry that not much has changed. Among the concerns still rolling in: a man with a service dog asked by staff to leave a funeral home; a woman with epilepsy told not to bring her dog to medical appointments.

EARLIER: Restaurant refuses to seat ex-Marine with service dog

“The complaints seem to be coming in at about the same rate regardless of the change,” said Martha M. Lafferty, advocacy center legal director. “It may be that businesses are not yet aware.”

The advocacy center and the Tennessee Disability Coalition want to change that in a way that will make the new law stick. They’ll soon host classes about protections within state and federal laws for people with disabilities. The state chapter of the National Federation of the Blind is hosting a training session in Nashville, with local police and emergency response officials scheduled to attend.

“We’ve been finding that even some of the police don’t know what the current laws are,” said Jimmy Boehm, a 34-year-old student at Middle Tennessee State University and a leader in the state’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

Boehm, who is blind, often gets the chance to spread the word about Tennessee’s law change. It even came up while he searched for a hotel to host the guide dog conference.

A hotel employee tried to remind him that attendees would need to bring paperwork about their animals. He explained that the law had changed and offered to give a talk to the staff.

“We don’t just say, ‘Hey, you’re wrong,’ ” Boehm said. “We try to educate.”

Restaurants, movie theaters

Many people who use service dogs don’t carry any kind of documentation.  There’s no standard format.

But for years, people with disabilities have run into challenges, particularly at restaurants, movie theaters, hospitals and hotels.

One conflict still sticks with James Brown of Antioch, Tenn. His dog Jordan, a German shepherd, helps with his travel around downtown Nashville, where he works and exercises at the YMCA on lunch breaks

A few days before the documentation law changed on July 1, Brown was turned away from a downtown Italian restaurant. He called the police, who eventually helped him get his meal – after a delay of about 30 minutes.

“I don’t get upset about it, but it’s another nuisance I have to go through,” said Brown, president of the Tennessee affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. “The law’s on your side, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to go inside and enjoy a nice meal. You might get that later on.”

Brown never has problems at the YMCA, where he’s a regular. He checks in without hassle, and Jordan guides him through the locker room and then to the gym.
Understanding the ADA

For years, the wording of Tennessee law planted the idea that people with disabilities could be questioned by business owners, said Lafferty, the disability rights advocate. A Tennessee attorney general’s opinion in 2001 added to that thinking by supporting the state law despite its difference
from the federal disabilities act.

Understanding of the disabilities act has now evolved, Lafferty said. Last year’s change, which firmly established in law that such questions were inappropriate, sailed through the legislature. The new law also gives business owners the ability to ask that service animals be removed when out of control.

Lafferty says people have to change the way they think about service dogs.

“Look at the dog like it’s a wheelchair,” Lafferty said. “Would you ask someone a bunch of questions about a wheelchair? No. You’d let them come into your business.”

Boehm, in his fifth semester at MTSU, doesn’t often encounter problems when he travels with his service dog, Shep. Shep knows how to guide Boehm to door handles and elevators, and straight to his classroom desk. The other students have grown accustomed to Shep’s quiet presence.

The two of them also roam around Murfreesboro, often aided by taxis. Boehm shops for groceries and frequents a barbershop and restaurant.

At the mall, Shep guides Boehm to the shops, where Boehm listens for the cash register area and asks employees for the name of the store. If it’s one he wants, he asks for shopping assistance. If not, they move on.

“I view it like we’re explorers,” Boehm said. “That way, it doesn’t get frustrating or anything. We just travel a little bit different.”

Boehm uses all his senses when he travels – sometimes in ways hard to put into words.

“You can hear a building,” he said.

“You’ll hear an echo or feel the wind. Or the sun, sometimes, the way the sun’s hitting me.”

Together, man and dog travel freely and mostly unassisted. But a bit of understanding from others, especially about the inherent challenges of  traveling without sight, does help, Boehm said.

At the Boulevard Bar and Grille, owner Jeff Nebel offers his elbow and guides Boehm to a spacious table where Shep can curl up, practically invisible, down below.

When people do see Shep – a skinny German Shepherd – they tend to be friendly.

Service dogs actually aren’t supposed to be petted while they “work,” but Boehm doesn’t mind.

He prefers the feeling of being welcomed to the sting of being questioned.

Service animals: Myth vs. fact

Myth: Only people who are blind or deaf use service animals.

Fact: People with many types of disabilities can use service animals.

Myth: Any animal can be a service animal.

Fact: In Tennessee and under federal law, only dogs are service animals. The federal law does treat people assisted by miniature horses similarly to those assisted by dogs.

Myth: Service dog users must show documentation to prove a disability to enter businesses.

Fact: It is illegal for business employees to ask service dog users for documentation since Tennessee law changed in 2013 to match federal law.

Myth: Housing providers follow the same service dog guidelines as other businesses.

Fact: The Fair Housing Act applies to the use of service animals by people with disabilities, and is actually broader than the American Disabilities Act and Tennessee law. The housing act allows people with disabilities to have untrained assistance animals in housing, and a variety of animals in addition to dogs and miniature horses.

Source: Disability Law & Advocacy Center

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  • Karin

    I’m glad to hear that Tennessee changed the law. As a person with a service dog that I trained myself, I know the ADA well, and it says that certification and ID are not required. There’s a good reason for that, if it was required it would discriminate against people who train our own dogs, or have a dog privately trained. I do understand why people get questioned, though. There are a lot of fakers out there and they ruin it for those of us with real service dogs. But it is usually easy to spot a fake. If the dog is behaving really badly, and the person doesn’t appear to have any sort of disability, then it’s time to ask questions. Otherwise, just leave them be. Also keep in mind that many disabilities are not visible, so don’t assume that a dog with a person who appears “normal” is not legit. The person could have seizures, diabetes, or PTSD, and just as much reason to need a dog as someone who is blind or in a wheelchair.

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