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Access Disputes: How to Handle Them

by Rachel Moseley

There are some things no service dog handler ever wants to deal with. Your dog having an accident in a store. Those kids that run up and grab your dog no matter how many times you tell them no.

Then there are access issues. The employee or business that is absolutely convinced that they’re not required to allow your service dog in their building. The places that generally don’t know anything about the law and push for things that are illegal for them to ask. Maybe they even just make up their own rules.

Here are some tips on how to handle these situations:

Remember

Stay calm and keep to the facts.

Keep your temper in check. You’re not helping yourself (or other handlers) if you start yelling and cussing the second a gatekeeper starts to deny access. Stay calm and keep to the facts. It’s easy to get upset and frustrated (particularly if you have anxiety related to confrontation), but it’s far better in the long run to keep the lid on your emotions. You can go vent to someone you know afterwards.

If you find yourself getting too worked up it may be best for you to leave. Give yourself a chance to calm down for a bit before you finish dealing with the issue.

State the Law

Immediately after being confronted you should reference the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and inform them of the two questions that businesses are allowed to ask:

1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Give your normal answers. Ideally you should keep a copy of the law and the frequently asked questions in your dog’s vest or otherwise with you to be able to show the gatekeeper.

In an ideal world this should be all you need to do. They should look at the law and accept that they were wrong.

Usually this solves the issue but sometimes you’ll have to go a bit further.

Move Up the Chain of Command

When clarifying the law isn’t enough it’s time to move up the chain of command. Ask for the employee’s manager. Be persistent if for any reason they try to refuse.

Present the manager with the law, answer the two questions businesses are allowed to ask again, and inform them of the issue you’re having with the employee trying to kick you out of the business. Ideally the manager should say something along the lines of “I apologize for the inconvenience” and move on without giving you further issue.

If they still think they’re in the right, you should realize that after a certain point arguing with them over the law becomes futile.

At this point, if it’s a chain business you can leave and contact corporate. You can normally find the number or email for corporate offices with a quick google search. Generally, the people there know the law and will solve the issue with the store. Some will even offer to somehow make up for your inconvenience.

If all else fails, another very helpful resource is your regional ADA center. These centers can help connect you with an ADA advocate that will provide assistance and clarification regarding your situation.

*Important*
Calling the police can result in them siding with the business and legal trouble for you. Although it can work on occasion, it’s not worth the risk that it can bring with it. It’s not the job of the police to enforce civil laws so they can’t force the business to accommodate you. If your state specifically considers denial of access a misdemeanor, the police could be a helpful ally in that case. Check your state laws to see if that applies to you.

A Few Scenarios

If the employee/manager mentions requiring certification, registration, or other “proof” then point them to question 17 in the ADA’s Frequently Asked Questions.

“Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry. *There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

Remind them that there is no official registry or certification process and that the ones that are out there are scams. Just because someone showed them “papers” in the past doesn’t mean that they’re legal or required by law.

If your dog is working without a vest or other identifiers and they bring it up as a reason to deny you, point them to question 8 in the FAQ where it specifically states that “The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness”. Remind them that it’s a dog’s behavior that makes it a service dog and not just a vest, leash wrap or any other piece of gear.

If they try to say they’re denying you because other patrons may have allergies or be afraid of dogs, point them to the section of the federal law where it states:

“Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.”

*Important*
If a business straight up tells you to leave then you are required to comply. Follow up at another time with either corporate or by filing a formal complaint. Sticking around can get you into legal trouble which isn’t worth it. Defend your rights but not at the risk of getting yourself arrested.

Filing A Complaint

When you’ve tried all of the above but nothing has resolved the issue, you have two choices left:

1. Drop it and not return to that business.

2. File a formal complaint.

I would suggest filing a complaint on a state level and a federal level, even if you’ve decided to never return to that business.

Contact Information to File Complaints

Federal complaints are filed through the Department of Justice. Here’s a form to file your complaint online. You can also file a complaint over the phone, the number is 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY).

State complaints are generally filed through a Disability Rights organization. If you google “disability rights” and your state it should come up. For example, in Arkansas the name of the organization is simply Disability Rights Arkansas and in Texas it’s Disability Rights Texas. Alternatively, select your state here.

What You Need

Department of JusticeTo file a complaint, you need to have some information handy:

  • Your full name, address, phone number, and email address
  • The name of the individual that discriminated against you
  • The information for the business that discriminated against you
  • Description of the incident
What to Expect

The DOJ deals with a lot of complaints so it will likely take around three months to hear back from them. They may contact you to get more information or they may have all they need and contact you when they finish their review of the incident. They may also give you further information to settle the issue such as ADA mediators or local lawyers.

The person in charge of your complaint with your state’s Disability Rights organization is generally available to talk to you throughout the process and help you understand what’s going on. They’ll talk to the business and inform them of the complaint and their legal obligation to allow you and your service dog in their business.

A Note

It’s important that you are aware that there are situations where you can legally be denied access (or allowed limited access). If the presence of a service dog requires a fundamental alteration of business then it’s no longer a reasonable accommodation and you can be denied or have limited access.

For example, zoos frequently request that service dog handlers stay away from open air exhibits for the safety of their animals. They also normally request that you move along if one of their animals is stressed by the presence of your dog. Both of these are reasonable accommodations given the nature of the business.

Another example, service dogs are not allowed in sterile areas like the ICU. When determining if a location is sterile, look and see if people are allowed to wear their street clothes inside. Tattoo shops, regular Emergency Rooms, and hospitals are not sterile environments (though some will try to say they are).

Hopefully you’ll never experience a serious access issue but if you do remember to keep your cool and handle it like a professional. Stick to the facts and don’t stay if it’s going to put you at risk of getting arrested for trespassing or similar charges.

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