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Legal changes coming to refine definition of service animal

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:12pm
I’ve written here previously about the importance of colleges and universities acting proactively to enact policies between service animals and other types of assistance animals. I can personally recall the discussion we had at my college in regards to service versus therapy animals. Here's some reasons to compel your school to do the same.



If you were not aware, the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the federal guidelines that govern access, including some proposed language changes in regards to the definition of a service animal.



My apologies for not getting this information up sooner. The deadline for action on this is Monday, August 18, 2008. So, please act quickly on this.



What follows is a letter that

The Seeing Eye, Inc.

sent to its more than 1,700 graduates, urging them to provide the DOJ with firsthand input from service dog handlers. It shows the sometimes subtle distinctions that a few words can make in proposals and policy.



The law will be tempered, so keep up on it. If your school has a policy in place, you will do well to stay abreast of this matter and keep your policy in line.



***



Dear Seeing Eye Family,



We need your help! The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking public comment on its newly proposed definition of a service animal. The Seeing Eye sent its own comments to the DOJ last Friday, and we urge you to join us by doing the same by the August 18 deadline.



Numbers count! It is vitally important that the DOJ hear as many comments as possible. In fact, this legislation is as significant as the early advocacy work that Morris Frank did for the dog guide movement decades ago. The fight isn't over, and our position needs to be heard. Submitting your comments is one of the most important things you, personally, can do for yourself and all other U.S. dog guide users.



The areas that seem to be most in need of revision are outlined in our letter below. Simply stated, we ask that the DOJ eliminate the phrase "minimal protection" in the new definition; require that the same behavior and training standards developed for dog guides be applied to all service animals; delete the "do work" wording by emphasizing task training as a defining factor in qualifying animals as "service animals;" and include a request that more guidance on taxi and private transportation access be added to the regulations. (See the Seeing Eye comments below to further illuminate these points, or to access a copy of the DOJ's Notice of Proposed Rule Making in either text or PDF format, you can go to

http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocumentDetail&o=09000



You can submit an electronic version of your comments at

http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=SubmitComment&o=090000

but you must do so by August 18.



Your comments can be as simple as, "I support The Seeing Eye's position on service animals," but even better is to write your own opinions on all or some of the issues addressed in our public comment.



You will have an option to insert comments directly into a field on the form or send your comments as an attachment. We advise you to write your comments first before logging onto the site because if you are on the web page too long, it will "time out" and you will have to start over again. You should also be aware that all comments, including your own, will be made available for public viewing online at

http://www.regulations.gov



The remainder of this email contains the text from The Seeing Eye's submitted comment. Thank you for joining us in this effort.



Sincerely,

Jim Kutsch



****







August 8, 2008



Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr., President

The Seeing Eye, Inc.

P.O. Box 375

Morristown, NJ 07963-0375



Re: Revisions to Service Animal Definition

Docket ID: DOJ-CRT-2008-0015-0001



The Seeing Eye, the pioneers and innovators of dog guide services, has been providing specially bred and trained dog guides for blind citizens of the United States since 1929. Through the efforts of one of our founders, Morris Frank, and other early graduates of our program, The Seeing Eye was instrumental in gaining access to all places of public accommodation for people traveling with dog guides. Today, as more and more people turn to animals for improved health and quality of life, The Seeing Eye commends the U.S. Department of Justice for its efforts to clarify its present regulatory language regarding the use of service animals. We particularly welcome the emphasis on maintaining control of the service animal at all times in public settings, the requirement of housebreaking and the Department's effort to formalize its position on emotional support/comfort animals.



In response to the NPRM published in the Federal Register on June 17th, The Seeing Eye offers the following comments for the Department’s consideration:



1. In response to question 9, The Seeing Eye believes that providing "minimal protection" should be removed from the proposed definition of a service animal.



The Seeing Eye is in agreement with the concerns expressed by the Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations (CADO). We also concur that alternative language can be substituted for "providing minimal protection" while still adequately representing the tasks of specific service animals. For instance, despite the fact that dog guides provide minimal protection to their handlers every day, e.g. stopping at changes in elevation or maneuvering around obstacles, the Department has successfully included this concept within the definition of the tasks under "guiding individuals with impaired vision." Thus, providing minimal protection is intrinsically stated within the tasks that the animal performs.



2. In response to question 10, The Seeing Eye believes that the Department should eliminate certain species from the definition of service animal.



The Seeing Eye agrees with the need for the Department to establish a practical and reasonable species parameter as part of its definition of a service animal. While we have no expertise in the breeding, training and placement of species other than dogs, The Seeing Eye believes that only animals that are capable of meeting or exceeding the same high training, behavioral and safety standards as that of Seeing Eye® dogs are suitable for public access. Some of these standards include the animal's ability to calmly, quietly and consistently perform its specialized tasks in public, to urinate and defecate on command and to lie quietly beside its handler without blocking aisles, doorways, or otherwise be obtrusive in public settings.



3. In response to Question 11, The Seeing Eye believes that the Department should not impose a size or weight limitation on service animals.



The Seeing Eye agrees with the comments submitted by CADO and further adds that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce such a regulation.



4. The Seeing Eye is opposed to retaining the term "do work" in the definition of a service animal and urges the Department to form the basis of the service animal definition on task training.



The Seeing Eye is aware that, over the last several years, more than half of the Department's settlement agreements involving the "reasonable modification" requirement under Title III involved a public accommodation's refusal to permit a service animal's entry in a place of public accommodation. These claims make evident the need for concise, measurable guidance for those seeking a distinction between legitimate service animals and those used for emotional comfort or support.



We appreciate the Department's attempt to provide the broadest feasible access to individuals with service animals by using the term "do work" in its definition. However, given the fact that this term has historically been the source of much confusion and misinterpretation, we respectfully ask that the Department eliminate this language from its newly proposed definition. The Seeing Eye believes that the newly added examples of tasks performed by service animals effectively and adequately expand the meaning of service animal to include the varied services provided by working animals on behalf of individuals with all types of disabilities. Moreover, task training elevates the animal's status from a non-task trained animal to a trained service animal that is more likely to consistently mitigate its owner's disability in public and be easily identified by the tasks it performs. Again, service animals that are suitable and appropriate for public access must be held to extremely high standards.



5. The Seeing Eye urges the Department to include specific language about denial of service by private transportation providers to people who use service animals in its regulatory language.



One of the most common complaints we receive involves taxicab drivers who refuse to transport our graduates and their Seeing Eye dogs. Many drivers claim to have allergies, fears or religious beliefs that prohibit them from allowing dogs into their vehicles.



We realize that this issue is not addressed in the NPRM, but, nevertheless, we ask that the Department consider incorporating text into the proposed regulation guidance that specifies that allergies, religious beliefs and fear of animals are not valid excuses for denying access to passengers with service animals.



The Seeing Eye appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed service animal revisions. We applaud the Department for its outstanding work and believe that with the incorporation of the comments noted above, the revised regulations will promote the responsible use of access rights and prevent the erosion of societal tolerance for dog guide and other service animal teams in places of public accommodation.
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