People with assistance dogs have a Federally protected right to bring their dogs into public areas, places of business, government offices, and anywhere else the public is allowed. There are a few exceptions, like in operating rooms, burn units, and other hospital areas that must be kept sterile. Also, the dog must be clean and well behaved, otherwise the person may be asked to have the dog wait outside while finishing their business. For the most part, though, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees unfettered access and equal treatment.
Keep in mind that these rights only extend to guide, hearing, and service dogs. They don’t apply to emotional support animals or therapy dogs; like pets, these are only welcome in public areas that don’t prohibit animals and in businesses and offices where permission is granted by the operator. Here’s a quick explanation of the main differences between these types of dogs.
Refused Entry Invariably Happens
Unfortunately, everyone partnered with an assistance dog who goes out with some regularity eventually encounters a situation in which the law is broken because their right to enter with the dog is not respected (at least not immediately). When this happens, the offending party is usually not acting maliciously, but is simply unaware of the full extent of your rights and the law, and is trying to look out for their place of business and other customers. However, too often there are people who knowingly choose to disregard the law.
Remain Calm and Factual
The most important part of dealing with denied access is keeping a cool head and not getting emotional. It’s not always easy, but it’s important. It’s understandable to be upset when you’re singled out, having your rights violated, and being unfairly made to feel like you’re doing something wrong. Again, even though it may not seem like it, the situation is probably not personal or malicious.
Calmly and rationally explain that the Department of Justice (this sounds serious) guarantees your right to bring your service dog into public areas under the Americans with Disabilities Act (which most people have heard of).
When emotions and tempers flare—either on your end or the other person’s—it’s never productive. If the exchange becomes heated, it’s unlikely to resolve well. It’s human nature to just become more stubborn and unreasonable on the defensive.
Be Prepared for This Exchange
It’s helpful to have a well-rehearsed short speech prepared for this situation. If you’re put on the spot or start getting emotional, it’s harder to express yourself clearly, concisely, and calmly. With a memorized explanation of your rights and the law, you more easily deliver a constructive statement.
Carry copies of official documents if it’s not too much trouble. The ADA Revised Requirements for Service Animals and the ADA FAQ About Service Animals are longer documents that cover the basics. Assistance Dog International’s Guide to Assistance Dog Laws is a thorough but lengthy resource. Also, carry the number for the ADA assistance line, and, if its during their operating hours, you can make a call to have your rights clarified; the number is 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY).
When a Reasonable Exchange Doesn’t Work
If your conversation doesn’t work, you may have better luck speaking to someone higher up. A manager, supervisor, or owner may be more informed about your rights or more agreeable, as well as more afraid of bad publicity and litigation.
Sometimes, as with many larger companies, you can track down a phone number for the corporate headquarters or a customer service department with a quick search on your smartphone or other mobile device. Explain the situation—again, remaining calm—and ask the person assisting you how to proceed.
Your instinct may be to call the police, but they aren’t usually able to assist you. The ADA is a civil law, not a criminal one, which means police can’t enforce it; only civil courts can. However, some states have additional legal protections in place, including criminal laws about denying access to people with service dogs. Contact your state’s Attorney General’s office so you know what protections and recourse you have if this situation arises.
Moving On to Corrective Action
If you’re still being denied access, it’s unlikely things will change at the moment. There’s little more that can happen besides escalation into something even more unpleasant, so it’s best to move along. Before you leave, ask any witnesses if they’d be willing to give you their names and contact information in case you decide to file complaints or take some action against the organization denying you fair access.
(click the link for more about what information you should provide and the process—or go directly to the ADA discrimination complaint form).
This is appropriate recourse for alleging disability discrimination against a government office or public accommodation, including, for just a few examples, a restaurant, doctor’s office, retail store, or hotel. The form is easy to complete and submit online, by mail, or by fax. Remember to keep a copy of your complaint and all original documents for your records.
Voice Your Complaint and You Will Be Heard
There are many websites where you can post reviews of businesses, including on their Facebook pages. Keep your review even-tempered and factual. You can also file complaints online with consumer protection agencies like the Better Business Bureau or State and local Consumer Affairs Departments; local newspapers, news sites, or other news organizations may be interested in hearing your story, too.
Remember, most disputes can be successfully resolved through education, and it’s always preferable to try to do it this way. But, if that doesn’t work, the next step would be to file an official complaint. In those few situations which are not satisfactorily resolved, your final recourse may have to be litigation.