If you want to bring your service animal shopping with you in Virginia, make sure you bring the animals' training certification or you might end up on the street.
That's what happened to one Virginia family earlier this month.
But, there's just one problem.
While Virginia requires owners of service animals to display the training certificate, it's against federal law to require anyone with a service animal to show proof of the animals certification, according to Marian Vessels, director of the Mid-Atlantic American Disability Act (ADA) Center.
Vessels said staff at restaurants and other businesses cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are only two questions that can be legally asked of someone wanting equal public access with his or her service animal, and then only when it is not obvious what service an animal provides.
Staff can ask two questions:
• Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
• What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Those two questions, and the federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA) guidelines, are part of many merchants' training programs like national grocery store chain Safeway, which has a store in Warrenton, and 43 stores throughout Northern Virginia.
Greg Ten Eyck, director of public affairs and government relations, said Safeway has a very specific policy regarding how employees are trained to engage customers who require the use of service animals, and that policy includes the only two questions the ADA allows them to ask.
"We have a long-standing commitment to the American Disability Act and take being in compliance very seriously here at Safeway," said Ten Eyck.
However, not all merchants are aware of the federal ADA guidelines and how they compare to state and local laws. The confusion can lead to embarrassment and conflict for both the merchant and the patron, according to Vessels.
Virginia has its own laws regarding identification of service animals, which require them to be in a harness, backpack, or vest identifying the dog as a trained service dog.
According to Vessel, failure to follow Virginia's identification requirements, however, cannot impede access to people with service animals who are otherwise in compliance with federal ADA service animal laws.
What that means is that just because a service animal's status isn't immediately obvious to a merchant, the merchant cannot turn it or its owner away.
"The Department of Justice is very clear here," said Vessels.
"You'd be in violation of the ADA if you refuse to admit any other type of service animal on the basis of local health department regulations or other state or local laws," Vessels said. "The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations."
Still, for businesses in Virginia there has to be some federal guidance on exactly how someone can make sure the animals people bring into their stores are legitimate service dogs and not pets.
The Department of Justice says:
Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses.
Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers.
If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you can ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability, according to the Department of Justice.
However, an individual who is going to a restaurant or theater is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability.
Therefore, the DOJ says such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.
“Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability."
For more information on the ADA go to http://www.ada.gov
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