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Accommodating Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Another very contentious area is whether youth programs must accommodate service animals and emotional service animals. Modern media confuses the two, but the law treats them very differently. A service animal (usually a dog or miniature horse) is trained to do a specific task related to the child’s disability. The task can be as simple as reminding them to take medication, or as complicated as detecting an oncoming seizure and protecting the child during the seizure. The animal can be trained either professionally or by the family.

Your program must make accommodations for service animals consistent with the principles set out in earlier posts. For example, if a service animal is not housebroken, you can exclude it. Similarly, if it is not well-trained and poses a danger to other children, then you can prevent it from coming into your program.  You can require that a service animal be leashed, as long as it can perform the tasks that the child needs and the child’s disability does not preclude a leash.

One problem that comes up is when other children are allergic to or afraid of the service animals.  In that case, you must make an effort to segregate them and care for everyone. If your program is too small for that accommodation to work, then you have to balance the competing interests.  If the child's fear of the animal is not severe, then you can work to make them more comfortable.  If it is a true phobia or severe allergy, then the presence of the service animal would fundamentally alter your program and you can exclude it. In a camping program, a blind child with a guide dog would able to participate in a moderate hike, but probably not rock climbing. 

Emotional support animals, by contrast, are not trained for a task and have no legal status under federal law. You can exclude these animals without running afoul of the ADA. If another child has an allergy or fear of the animal, then their needs will always outweigh the presence of the service animal.  As always, local or state laws vary, so check with your local attorney about those requirements.

You will need to work with the children in your program about how to interact with service animals.  They are not pets, and they are there to do a job, not entertain the group.  No doubt at first your children will be distracted by its presence, but if you enforce the boundaries, they eventually will get used to the animal and treat it appropriately.  

It can seem daunting to incorporate service animals into your program, but the vast majority of them have been trained to blend well into most environments.  If you work with the parents and child, you will find it easier than you think to accommodate a service animal in your program.


ada compliance, youth serving organizations

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