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By: David Molinari
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides people with disabilities equal access to employment, state and local government programs and goods and services. Businesses open to the public including hospitality venues must comply with the ADA and are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires businesses (hospitality establishments) open to the public allow individuals to bring in their service animals even if the establishment has a “no pet” policy.
A trend encountered in the hospitality industry is clientele demanding the venue accommodate their pet who does not meet the requirements of a “service animal.” Staff is often faced with an immediate decision that has rippling consequences; a possible violation of the ADA resulting in civil penalties, possible damages and an award of the opposing party’s attorney’s fees.
A service animal is any dog 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. Service animals are working animals. They are not pets.
Customers often blur the line with animals that provide emotional support, companionship or comfort. These are not considered service animals because the animal does not perform a specific task associated with an individual’s disability.
The task performed by a service animal must be directly related to the disability of the person handling the animal. Such tasks include, but are not limited to: guiding a person who is blind or has low vision, alerting a person with hearing loss, picking up or retrieving objects, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, providing physical support or assistance with balance, assisting a person with psychiatric disabilities by interrupting impulsive behaviors.
For frontline staff dealing with customers in the hospitality industry, staff may not be able to immediately recognize a disability that is not obvious. Therefore, staff should be trained to ask two questions: first, is the animal a service animal; and second, what task has the animal been trained to perform?
The hospitality venue and staff must refrain from asking about the nature or extent of the person’s disability, requesting the handler demonstrate the service animal’s task or requiring documentation proving the animal has been certified, trained or licensed.
A service animal must always be under the handler’s control. Service animals must have harness, leash or other tether unless the handler’s disability prohibits such use or the animals’ task is adversely impacted by the use of a harness, leash or tether.
The hospitality venue must keep in mind that a service animal is a working animal; not a pet. The staff must refrain from distractive actions around a service animal such as attempting to pet, feed or distract the animal. Under no circumstances should the venue attempt to extract an extra fee or surcharge from a customer with a service animal. This includes hotels that require a deposit for customers with pets, as well as restaurants, bars or other hospitality venues.
If a service animal is disruptive, threatening or not housebroken, the venue may ask the handler to remove the animal. The venue must allow the individual with the disability the option of returning to the establishment without the animal. Other customers who may have allergies or fears of dogs is not a valid reason for denying access to a disabled individual with a service animal. The venue must try to separate the person with the allergy or other aversion from the disabled person with a service animal.
If further information is needed, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]; (619) 687-3000.