A service animal’s unintended consequences

Photo by Brenda Lin

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was put in place to protect the rights of people with disabilities. More specifically, the law protects people who need service animals from discrimination by businesses. While businesses are permitted to ask if a dog is a service animal and what tasks it performs, they cannot ask for proof of the animal’s services or training. Businesses are only allowed to have an animal removed if it is out of control or a threat to people’s health and safety. While I agree with the overall sentiment of the law, I disagree with some of its provisions.

Primarily, that someone cannot be asked for a special ID for their animal. By preventing businesses from confirming if an animal is indeed a service animal, both people and service animals are put at risk. Within the last month, a seeing eye dog was attacked by a pit bull on the Sacramento Light Rail transit system. While the service animal was only mildly injured, the incident should have never happened. Initially, the pit bull’s owner claimed the dog was a service animal; but once police began looking into the attack, he admitted that the dog was just a pet. Most people with legitimate service animals would prefer to be asked for proof rather than allow able-bodied people to lie about whether their animal is trained or not. It should be the government’s responsibility to issue an ID that proves an animal is trained for a specific task in addition to changing the law to allow businesses to ask for such an ID. Because they are allowed in restaurants and places where food is sold, service animals have to be extremely well behaved, and most pets are not well mannered enough to safely be in food preparation areas.

While businesses are allowed to remove an animal for health and safety reasons, allergies do not count as a valid safety concern in all but severe cases. I have severe allergies to most animals including dogs, the most common service animal, which leads to asthma attacks, hives and swelling. Day to day, my allergies don’t cause any problems; however, they can become debilitating if I’m in a closed space with an animal. In most public spaces, it’s fairly easy to avoid animals, but sometimes there’s no escape.

Earlier in February, the Supreme Court sided with a student, Ehlena Fry, who fought to bring her service dog to school. The school cited students with allergies and one student with a fear of dogs as their reason for not allowing the animal. Fry’s dog was considered a hypoallergenic breed. It may seem like hypoallergenic breeds would prevent health problems, however most allergists believe there is no such thing. The school also provided Fry with a one-on-one aid to help with mobility, which they claimed was sufficient under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Despite the recent ruling, another parent is attempting to work with their child’s school to avoid dogs. Ashley Anne Misinkavitch worries about her son Parker’s severe anaphylactic reaction to dogs. Parker has been admitted to the hospital three times because of his allergy, but his mom isn’t trying to prevent others from having dogs. She believes that the school should be required to provide accommodations for Parker, like they are required to for disabled students.

The law protects both parties but that protection only works if we acknowledge that allergies are not only caused by direct contact and that hypoallergenic dogs don’t exist. Accommodations shouldn’t only be required for “significant allergic reactions” because even mild reactions can be debilitating.

I want to end by saying, I’m not against service animals, but I think too many people forget that there are drawbacks. Service animals are not the perfect solution to everything and we need to take all disabilities into account in public spaces.