by Anne Martinez
When it comes to having a service dog, the key qualifier is whether or not you have a disability. There are several common misconceptions about the definition of disability. It’s important to understand the definition, because laws related to both service dogs and emotional support animals specify that you, the handler, must have a disability to be legally protected.
In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act provides the primary definition of disability that would be used to determine if you qualify, should you ever be in the unlikely situation of having to prove your qualification in a court room. The ADA definition of disability requires that:
- You have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities
- You have a record of such an impairment
Note that it says nothing about a formal diagnosis. That’s because, technically, none is required. You don’t have to have a letter from a medical professional specifying your disability to qualify. Equally important, if you do have a formal diagnosis, that doesn’t automatically equate to having a disability. So then, what does qualify as a disability, according to the ADA?
There’s no comprehensive checklist of specific conditions that qualify, however ADA guidelines do provide a definition for the term “physical or mental impairment”:
- any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.
- any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability (formerly termed mental retardation), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
Not all impairments are disabilities. For example, having a tendency toward anxiety, occasional vertigo, or needing strong glasses may cause you difficulties but likely doesn’t rise to the level of a disability. To be considered a disability, the impairment must substantially limit your life activities.
Life activities include such things as caring for yourself, performing manual tasks, walking, bending, interacting with others, thinking, and working, among others. An impairment that prevents or makes it substantially difficult to do any of these things can qualify as a disability. The impairment does not have to be so severe that you can’t perform the activity at all, only that you’re substantially hampered compared to the general population.
You might be wondering, what if my impairment comes and goes? That’s often the case with relapsing and remitting conditions such as major depressive disorder or multiple sclerosis. The answer is that it still qualifies as a disability if it limits a major life activity when it’s active.
Although you don’t need a formal diagnosis or documentation to qualify as disabled under the ADA, there are some situations where you may legally be asked for proof of disability in order to have your service dog with you. These include:
- Requesting a reasonable accommodation to bring your service dog to work
- Living in “no pets” housing
- Flying with a psychiatric service dog
Remember that having a disability is only one half of becoming a legal service dog team. The other part is that your dog must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for you that are directly related to your disability. Meet both criteria, and you’ll benefit from lots of legal protections supporting your right to be accompanied by your service dog almost anywhere you go.