As I note in a New York Post opinion piece published on Sunday, today marks an unusual milestone: the executive branch of the U.S. government is actually rolling back a significant burden imposed on business owners and others under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Because the subject matter is an unusually colorful one – the widespread misclassification of household pets, including such exotic species as iguanas, goats, and boa constrictors, as “service animals” under the ADA – you’d think there’d be major press coverage. And yet with scattered exceptions here and there, public attention has been muted. And there’s a story in that too.
In the early years of the law (as I observe in the Post piece) the ADA’s mandate that businesses admit service animals caused little stir because dogs trained to help persons with blindness, deafness and some other disabilities are skillfully trained to stay on task while ignoring such distractions as food, strangers and the presence of other animals. But given the law’s lack of definitions, combined with lopsided penalties should a defendant guess wrong – $10,000 is possible for a first violation – shop owners began seeing more and more rambunctious spaniels and irritable purse dogs, to say nothing of rabbits, rats, ferrets, lizards and critters of many other sorts. Doctors obligingly wrote notes testifying that the animals were helpful for mood support or to fend off depression; you can buy “therapy dog” vests online with no questions asked.
The new rules toughen things up. With a minor exception for miniature horses, service animals will now have to be dogs; they’ll have to be trained to perform a service; and while that service can relate to an “invisible” disability, including one of a psychiatric nature, it cannot be based simply on mood support or similar goals. Also, they’ll need to be on-leash unless their service requires otherwise.
In revising the rule, the Obama administration was heeding the wishes not of frazzled retailers but of disabled-rights advocates themselves. As press coverage recounts, persons who employ well-trained service animals suffer not only from public backlash but also from more tangible setbacks such as disturbances that can arise when other, less well-trained animals challenge their dog in an indoor setting. If the new change counts as deregulation, it’s a sort of accidental and tactical deregulation not arising from any notion that it’s better to leave private owners free to set their own rules.
And that helps explain the absence of fanfare, not to say stealth, with which the Obama administration is letting the new rule go into effect. Knowing that the change will be unpopular with some of its own constituents, it seems happy to forgo credit with constituencies that might favor deregulation – notwithstanding the public fuss a few weeks ago about the President’s newfound interest in reducing regulatory burdens. That interest remains, to say the least, untested.