West Hollywood’s Disability Advisory Board voted 6 to 1 last night to form a short-term subcommittee to address ways to inform and educate the public about service animals. The move comes amid growing community concerns about people taking animals, almost always dogs, into businesses and public buildings when those animals are not actually trained to assist a person with a disability.
Board chair Yola Dore said that abuse of laws requiring that businesses accommodate service animals hurts people with real disabilities.
“It hurts the disabled community when some people take what they say is a service animal to places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Target, and they play ball with these reported service animals, their pets jump all over people and get frisky and they say, ‘But this is a service animal’.” Dore said. “Then, when a person with a real need who happens to have a service animal comes forward, the business owner feels leery to welcome you in and/or to be more helpful.”
The issue is a hot topic among West Hollywood residents who see more and more dogs being brought into grocery stores, gyms, bars and shops. WEHOville recently ran an editorial questioning whether all these dogs are service animals.
.During a presentation to the board, Steve Wayland, program director of PAWS/LA (Pets are Wonderful Support), an animal support/service agency founded in 1989 by West Hollywood resident Nadia Sutton, explained that the laws always favor people with disabilities.
“The [California] state law says if there is a conflict between the state and federal law, the law that is more favorable to the person with the disability is the law that prevails,” Wayland said.
The laws makes a distinction between service animals and emotional support/companion animals.
Service animals are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, such as seeing-eye dogs for the blind or a dog trained to sense oncoming seizures in its owner. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, allows a service animals to accompany its owner into any business, public building or on public transportation. Even if health code regulations bar animals from entering a business, the ADA supersedes those laws and allows service animals to enter. The ADA only recognizes dogs and miniature horses as service animals.
Emotional support or companion animals are not trained to perform a specific task. Housing laws allow seniors and disabled people to have up to two companion animals in their apartments, even if it is a “No Pets” building. However, there is no public accommodation for companion animals, which means they are not allowed in businesses, public buildings or on buses or other public transportation.
The problem is trying to distinguish between service animals and companion animals.
“How do you determine if someone is out in public with a service animal?” asked Wayland. “The answer is, ‘We don’t and we can’t.’ The law doesn’t allow for that anymore.”
Federal regulations prohibit anyone from being required to provide proof that his or her animal is registered or certified as a service animal, Wayland said. In the past there have been attempts to create a registry of disabled people with service animals. Those attempts have been made at the request of some people owning service animals, but were met with resistance.
If someone enters a business with an animal, the owner or an employee is only allowed to ask two questions: “Is that a service animal?” and “What is the animal trained to do?”
The law does not provide any mechanism to challenge the answers the animal’s owner gives to those two questions. However, if someone is somehow found to be falsely claiming an animal is a service animal, he or she can be charged with a misdemeanor, jailed for up to six months and fined $1,000.
Conversely, interfering with the rights of a disabled person, such as denying him or her access to a facility, is also a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500. For that reason, business owners are unlikely to challenge someone claiming an animal is a service animal.
Wayland explained that approximately 20% of the American public has some form of disability and half of that 20% have an “invisible disability,” i.e., the disability is not evident to the general public.
Wayland suggested that education is the best way to deal with situation. Board member Tom Demille agreed and proposed creating a fun educational video that would get people talking about the distinctions between service and companion animals. Board member Suzanne Dietrich suggested the ADA should be revised to included clearer definitions of service animals.
The three-member subcommittee that the board agreed to form will consist of Yola Dore, Rick Watts and Louise Smith. They will meet in the coming weeks and return with recommendations that will be presented to the City Council for approval.
Board member Joy Freiberg voted against creating the subcommittee, saying there were more important items the board should be dealing with such as housing, homelessness, hunger and substance abuse.
“How is this helping anybody’s disability?” asked Freiberg, explaining her no vote.
Speaking during the public comment session, former board member Michael Wojtkielewicz, who has a service dog, also questioned why the board was addressing this issue when it had yet to take action to ensure that Hart Park was accessible to the handicapped.
Located off Sunset Boulevard near Sweetzer Avenue, Hart Park has the city’s only off-leash dog park. Wojtkielewicz said it was more important for residents with disabilities to be able to get to the off-leash dog park than to worry about people abusing the service animal designation.
“Service animals need a place to run, service animals need exercise,” Wojtkielewicz said. “The one and only off-leash dog park, and it remains inaccessible . . . and this body never took it up.”
After the board meeting, Wayland told WEHOville that another way to handle to problem was to create laws regarding animal behavior.
“If we just allow people to have their well-behaved dogs with them, then we would get this whole thing off the table,” Wayland said. “It wouldn’t be about trying to determine whether someone is disabled, it would just be if the animal is well behaved, then its appropriate to have it out in public, if it’s not, it isn’t.
“It’s the same standard, if somebody who is disabled has a service animal who is misbehaving, then they can be barred. That’s the standard that someone can bar you from public accommodation, not because you don’t believe they are disabled, but because the animal is misbehaving.”