by Pamela Cohen, staff attorney for Disability Rights California
September 19, 2014
Can a state park refuse access to a person using a service dog on the basis of protecting wildlife, when that park is otherwise open to the public?
State parks are covered under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as places operated by governmental (“public”) entities. Title II allows people with disabilities to bring service dogs with them into public spaces. In contrast, emotional support animals—animals who provide comfort to a person with a disability, but are not individually trained to perform specific disability-related work or tasks—need not be allowed in public spaces or businesses. State disability discrimination laws may also apply.
The conditions on which a person can bring a service animal into a state park under the ADA are the same conditions that apply to private businesses:
– A representative of the park can ask the person two questions to make sure that the dog is a service animal: whether the individual has a disability that requires the use of the dog, and what disability-related service the dog provides.
– The dog must be under the handler’s care and control.
– The dog cannot pose a “direct threat,” meaning a significant risk to the health or safety of others, or jeopardize the safe operation of the park.
– The dog’s presence cannot fundamentally alter the nature of the services, facilities, privileges or advantages offered by the park.
People with disabilities should be allowed access to state parks with service animals as long as these conditions are met. However, access may be denied in certain protected areas of a park if allowing a dog into the area would fundamentally alter the park’s wildlife preservation function. If these areas are open to the public, the park would have to establish that the presence of a well-behaved dog, under the handler’s control, would threaten wildlife while the presence of people would not. This determination would be made on a case-by-case basis.
If you believe that you were illegally denied access to a state park with your service animal, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) within 180 days of the date of discrimination. You can file a DOJ complaint by calling (800) 514-0301 or visiting: www.ada.gov/t3compfm.htm. Administrative remedies may also be available at the state level. Whether or not you file an administrative complaint, you can file a lawsuit under the ADA in federal court within two years of the date of discrimination. Some states have procedural requirements for filing state lawsuits against public entities for money damages, and much shorter deadlines may apply.
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