by Amanda A. Barreto, Esq.
Assistance animals are a common occurrence these days: on airplanes, in restaurants, and at the grocery store. Ohio businesses who offer up any space to the general public—whether a lobby or a larger retail or dining area—need to understand the rules governing assistance animals so they do not find themselves in violation of state and federal disability laws or facing thousands, or even millions, of dollars in potential damages.
In Ohio, it is unlawful for a business offering a “place of public accommodation” to deny any person—whether a customer, potential customer, or member of the general public—the full enjoyment of such accommodations by refusing to allow the admittance of an assistance animal or requiring an extra charge for the presence of the assistance animal.
While we usually think assistance animals are dogs, Ohio does not limit protections solely to assistance dogs but rather defines an “animal assistant” as “any animal which aids” a person with a disability.
DEFINING A SERVICE ANIMAL
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the federal law governing assistance animals in public places, does have a more limited definition of a “service animal,” which can be a dog—of any breed—that is individually trained for the benefit of an individual with a disability or, on rare occasion, a miniature horse.
For businesses that are wary of permitting an assistance animal (per Ohio law) or a service dog (per the ADA), please know that there are only two safe inquiries that you can make when encountering an animal in your public space:
- Is this a service animal that is required because of a disability?
- What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?
That’s it. A business cannot ask for documentation of a disability, proof that the animal is in fact trained, or require an additional fee for the animal.
Much of the news around assistance animals—a peacock on a plane or a beagle in a sorority dorm—are likely applications of rules surrounding emotional support animals.
DEFINING AN EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL
Service animals differ from emotional support animals in many respects. First, they are specifically trained to perform tasks. Second, pursuant to the ADA, only dogs—and sometimes miniature horses—can be service animals. Finally, the laws governing service animals apply to places of public accommodation. Emotional support animals are not specifically trained; can be any animal; their presence is not required by the ADA in places of public accommodation.
Currently, the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Act protect the legal right to have an emotional support animal, specifically on commercial flights and in housing. Emotional support animals are not pets, but rather provide emotional support to alleviate one or more major life functions that impact a person with a disability. Under the Fair Housing Act, all housing providers must follow the rules allowing emotional support animals.