Last month, an autistic girl in California waited for 30 minutes to see a mall Santa only to be rejected because of her service dog, a pit bull named Pup-cake. Santa was allergic. The mall and Santa have since apologized, but I fear more backlash to service dogs thanks to cheaters who try to pass off their pets as official. These trends are a disaster for people with disabilities whose service animals perform functions that they can't -- and this doesn't need to be happening. Only real service animals, like Pup-cake, are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the law needs tweaking.
"Where can I buy one of those outfits?" The woman who stopped us in the produce section was serious. She wanted a service-dog vest so she could take her pet shopping like she thought I was doing. I explained that the Labrador retriever eying the celery wasn't mine and wasn't a pet. Neva belonged to Canine Companions for Independence and I was helping her learn to behave near food. I've raised seven dogs like Neva over the past 10 years, priming each one for the intensive training they get at the next stage of service dog training. When I returned a dog to CCI, he got training specific to various disabilities. He might someday turn lights on and off for someone who can't reach the switch, or open and close doors for someone in a wheelchair, or stabilize someone with a balance disorder. He might steer a blind person away from hazards like branches and potholes. He might alert a parent to a child's seizure or lie on top of the child till the seizure passes.
The ADA gives these extraordinary dogs access to public places (within reason; you can't take one to a hospital's burn unit or a semiconductor manufacturer's clean room). Because of their public access, they get cleanliness and politeness training too. Service dogs are cleaner than your average pet. They even toilet on command. They are quiet and focused when working. Their training sets them apart from emotional support animals. An emotional support pig, for example, is designated as such by a letter on letterhead from a licensed mental health professional, who attests that the pig is prescribed for an emotionally or psychiatrically disabled person. Poof! A letter turns an untrained animal into one that the Fair Housing Act says can live where pets are prohibited and that the Air Carrier Access Act says can fly at no extra charge, even though the ADA explicitly states that animals "whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA." In a humorous New Yorker piece, Patricia Marx reported success with a fake emotional support turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca, and pig.
America is confused about assistance animals. Part of the problem is cheaters. Another part is the ADA.
To protect the privacy of people with disabilities, the ADA makes it hard to challenge a service dog's status. Restaurant owners, for example, can only ask whether a dog is required because of a disability and what tasks it has been trained to do. But the ADA does not require that service dogs be certified or registered. As numerous news accounts attest, people can outfit their pets as service dogs and then enjoy public access rights. Without documentation, it's hard for businesses to filter out animals that compromise public health or safety.
Don't get me wrong. The ADA has clearly improved the lives of people with disabilities. And, although many proprietors may not know this, it does allow them to deny access to an animal that behaves poorly. Barking or growling, jumping on people, and running away from a handler are examples of poor behavior in a service animal. (More details can be found here and here.) So why are we sharing planes and restaurants with so many disruptive animals? Perhaps probing private matters of complete strangers is uncomfortable. This may be especially true in the case of so-called invisible disabilities. So, if you're one of those able-bodied people who pretends her pet is working, stop it!
And, let's tweak the ADA again. Many creatures used to count as service animals, including lizards, rats, and monkeys. But in 2011, the ADA re-defined "service animals" as dogs. (There's a special provision for miniature horses, like this one.) But why not fix the problems that cheaters cause for disabled communities and write a smarter law in one fell swoop? First, define "service animal" by its skills and not by its species. Second, require certification and registration of the animal so that someone with a real service animal can prove it discreetly. Strengthening the ADA without diluting its attention to a disabled person's privacy would be possible if service animals were certified and registered.
Public Voices Fellow Cecile McKee has raised puppies for Canine Companions for Independence and Guide Dogs for the Blind. She was also a Faculty Fellow in the University of Arizona's Disability Resource Center (2010-2011).