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Protecting Service Animal Access

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rep. Jimmie Smith filed HB 849 to help protect the rights of people with disabilities, including veterans, to use their service animals.

In recent years, both Disability Rights Florida and K9s for Warriors have intervened in situations where a person with a disability has been unlawfully denied use of a service animal.

Captain Jason Haag of K9s for Warriors put it this way:  “Being with Axel and what K9s did for me is what got me back out in the public. For some vets trying to recover from PTSD or a TBI, being denied the right to use a service animal at a business or restaurant sets them back in their recoveries to where they stop leaving their houses again.”  

Photograph of one of the classes from K9s for WarriorsDisability Rights Florida Managing Attorney David Boyer, a 20-year Army veteran and current Major in the Army Reserves U.S. Army Reserves, explained that, “Service animals have very positive impacts on the physical and emotional well-being of a whole range of people with disabilities. We encounter too many people who are qualified to use a service animal but encounter a denial of access due to the lack of awareness of a particular business or restaurant. If you are a person with a disability, but your disability is not very “visible”, the odds of being refused access are even worse.”

Current Florida law contributes to the problem because Florida’s definitions of an individual with a disability and a service animal are out of date. For example, Florida law does not recognize various forms of mental illness, brain disease, and psychiatric disability, including PTSD, as a type of disability in section 413.08 of the Florida Statutes. It needs to be easier for public accommodations to understand what they can and cannot do. Revising and updating Florida law would go a long way. 

That’s where Representative Jimmie Smith comes in. Last week, Representative Smith, himself a 20-year Army veteran, filed HB 849. HB 849 will help make sure that people with disabilities, including returning veterans who have less visible, but nevertheless, very real disabilities, are among those qualified to use service animals in Florida.

HB 849 also adds needed clarifications to Florida’s housing provisions so that they are consistent with the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act covers the use of service animals or emotional support animals by people with disabilities in their own home vs. out in the public. The rules are a little different than the rules about service animals in public, so updating Florida law will be very helpful to individuals who rely on animals in their home for work, tasks, and support.

Advocates for qualified users of service animals and emotional support animals have asked that Florida punish and deter fraudulent users, so that fraudulent users will not undermine their rights. HB 849 addresses this issue as well and in addition to proposing a new offense for fraudulent use, it creates a new community service requirement for anyone found guilty of either fraudulent use or unlawful interference with lawful use of a service or support animal.

Capt. Haag explained the importance of the bill this way, “once passed, this bill will be help provide another big step forward in support of the recovery and rights of our disabled veterans. Service dogs are saving the lives of these great individuals and their service animal access rights should be protected, just as these veterans have protected us all. On behalf of K9s for Warriors we want to extend our sincerest thanks to Representative Jimmie Smith for his dedication and great work on House Bill 849 and congratulate him on the bill being filed.” 

Photograph courtesy of K9s for Warriors

Tags for this Post

accommodations, americans with disabilities act, fair housing act, legislature, mental illness, recovery, veterans,

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