Tuesday, May 28, 2019
By Amanda Lawrence-Patel
The recent increase in media reports regarding requests by individuals to access their service animals, or “therapy pets” or “compassion pets” in the course of their employment and in accessing services has caused various organizations to consider their responsibility to accommodate staff and clients who require the use of a guide dog or service animal. Accordingly, the purpose of this article is to provide some best practices to ensure that your organization knows how to respond when a request for access to a service animal is received.
Familiarize yourself with key terms
While the terms “service animal” and “guide dogs” are sometimes used interchangeably when speaking about the right of an individual to access a service animal or guide dog, the two terms are not synonymous for the purposes of all applicable legislation. Indeed, the legislation which provides individuals with a right to use a service animal may differ slightly depending on the animal and/or its purpose, although all are covered by the Human Rights Code.
Know applicable legislation
Organizations should be aware of three key pieces of legislation. First, the Blind Person Rights Act specifically pertains to guide dogs used for blind persons and defines a guide dog as a dog trained as a guide for a blind person and having the qualifications prescribed by the regulations. Under the Act, no person shall deny accommodation, services or facilities to a person accompanied by a guide dog or shall discriminate against any person for the reason that they are accompanied by a guide dog.
Second, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) states that where a person with a disability is accompanied by a guide dog or other service animal, a provider of services shall ensure that the person is permitted to enter the premises with the animal and to keep the animal with him or her (unless otherwise excluded by law). Under the AODA, an animal is a service animal if the animal can be readily identified as one that is being used by a person for reasons relating to that person’s disability, including where the animal is confirmed as such by a letter from a qualified “regulated health professional.”
The third piece of legislation to be aware of is the Ontario Human Rights Code. “Disability” under the Code includes “physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal.” This captures guide dogs, but like the AODA, it is also much broader and includes all types of dogs as well as other animals used for support purposes. Failing to accommodate a guide dog or service animal where the animal is actually required for a disability related need to the point of undue hardship constitutes a failure to accommodate a disability.
Respond appropriately to request
First, regardless of whether a request to access a guide dog or service animal is in the context of employment or access to services, be sure that the organization responds promptly and takes the request seriously. To facilitate this, organizations should consider developing a policy for employees outlining how requests will be handled and the process for a response.
Second, the organization should look critically at whether the service animal or guide dog is actually required to address a disability-related need that is acting as a barrier to employment or accessing the service. In many cases, the first step of the inquiry is easy for example, in the case of a blind individual, the guide dog is clearly addressing a disability-related need as the “eyes” of the individual.
In other cases, the issue of whether a service animal is required to address a disability-related need is not as straightforward. In those circumstances, the organization should have a thoughtful and respectful discussion with the individual who has made the request, to discuss the type of support that the service animal provides to the individual and other relevant information, such as what care the animal needs.
There may be some circumstances, such as where the request is made in the context of employment or where the request involves ongoing access to an organization’s premises, which necessitates a request for medical documentation related to the individual’s disability-related needs. The information which is requested should, in almost all cases, be limited only to the individual’s limitations and restrictions and the need which the service animal will address.
Implement accommodation as appropriate
If it is determined that access to a service animal is a reasonable accommodation, the organization should consider how to integrate the animal into the workplace. For example, there may be circumstances where the organization should give notice of the animal’s presence to other employees, customers or third parties. Concerns raised by other employees, customers or clients about a fear of animals or allergies to animals must be addressed and a balancing of rights may need to be considered.
Finally, organizations may also want to re-evaluate the need for the service animal periodically where appropriate.
Amanda Lawrence-Patel is a labour and employment lawyer in the Toronto office of Hicks Morley LLP. She frequently provides workplace investigation training and accommodation training to clients at internal workplace sessions and she provides external training on issues such as the duty to accommodate and workplace harassment. You can reach her at 416-450-6022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.