What does a flying squirrel and a seeing-eye dog have in common? Not enough, according to new Florida law.
During the recent legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed a measure that greatly clarifies and enhances the definition of service animals in our state. These changes will help provide a fair balance between providing access for disabled persons and the animals that serve them, and ensuring that no one falsely misrepresents the use and training of their animal.
For many years, Florida law has affirmed that individuals with physical disabilities are entitled to equal access to public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, etc.), as well as public employment and housing, including the right for people to be accompanied by service animals in all public areas.
These new enhancements will expand those protections to include mental impairments which impact a major life activity, such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.
Also, for the first time, protection will be available for businesses owners to guard against individuals who try to misuse these laws in an attempt to bring their untrained pets into places that they don't belong. Forever gone will be the days of someone being able walk into the Florida State Fair with their pet flying squirrel simply because they say that they need it without any reason or justification.
Going forward, while public accommodation proprietors are still prohibited from asking a person about their specific disabilities, they now can inquire if their animal is, in fact, a service animal, whether it is being used to assist with a disability, and if so, what work the animal has been trained to perform. The service animal will be required to be kept under the control of its handler, and must also be housebroken and pose no serious threat to others. If these conditions are not met, the proprietor will now have the legal standing to ask that person to remove the animal from the premises.
This new law also provides that anyone who knowingly and willfully misrepresents being qualified to use a service animal may be charged with a second degree misdemeanor, with punishment including that person potentially having to perform 30 hours of community service for an organization serving truly disabled persons or another organization as determined by the court.
Service animals play an important role in furthering both the autonomy and independence of individuals with disabilities. This new law puts Florida at the forefront of providing fair and equal access to disabled persons and the animals that serve them, along with protecting Florida businesses and their patrons from those who would attempt to abuse these important safeguards for their own personal convenience.
Submitted by Michael Keller, Vice Chair.Florida Commission on Human Relations