Local Interest of Broad Concern
What would you do if an employee requested to use a service animal at work? The Manatee County Public Library System in Florida learned firsthand how to handle the situation when long time library staffer Terri Simon requested to bring her service dog, Mister, to work. Simon, who has a hearing impairment, relies on Mister to alert her to sounds of which she would otherwise be unaware. At work, this means notification beeps from the computer, patrons speaking to her when her back is turned, and other important sounds. These noises prompt Mister to rub against Simon’s leg to indicate there is something that needs her attention. Simon knew a service dog would improve her work performance, but it also brought novel challenges for the library.
Administrators waited until Simon could transfer to a smaller branch before granting a trial run with Mister, which will be reevaluated after three months. Having a service animal in the library also prompts questions from patrons who ask what he can do and if they can pet him. Simon uses these as teachable moments to make patrons aware of proper behavior toward service animals as well as how service animals assist people with disabilities.
Service animals can perform a variety of vital functions for their owners, including assisting with conditions that aren’t visible, such as alerting someone to low blood sugar or an impending seizure. Just as a person with disabilities isn’t visibly identifiable, a service animal may or may not be identifiable; some wear a collar or harness that notifies others that they are working, but it is not required. For example, Simon’s dog, given his highly visible public role, wears a vest that says “PLEASE ASK TO PET ME.” Also, it is not required that service animals be certified, and owners do not have to carry documentation “proving” their status. Nevertheless, it is important to follow certain guidelines when interacting with someone who uses a service animal. These animals are not pets, so do not pet, feed, or distract the animal. Their owner is responsible for their care and behavior. Never call or attempt to get the animal to follow you. Their handler will give them all the direction they need, and they may be trained to assist in unexpected ways.
Librarians Are Special
Because we work in public spaces, there are special concerns for librarians when it comes to service animals above and beyond how to best serve patrons who use service animals in the library. It is an accessibility best practice to give patrons with service animals the benefit of the doubt. However, there is sometimes doubt about an animal’s therapeutic purpose. In these cases, staff may ask two precisely worded questions: (1) “Is the service animal required because of a disability?” and (2) “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
We must be committed to providing inclusive public spaces, which means making accommodations for people with service animals. Yet we are also responsible for maintaining safe spaces, so if an animal becomes a direct threat to the health and safety of others, you may ask that the animal be removed by their owner. This should be handled on a case by case basis, and the patron should still be welcomed to use the library without their animal.
Service animals provide invaluable assistance to people with disabilities. As Simon says, “Mister helps me on a daily basis to feel more independent and less dependent on others. I was always afraid to move out on my own in case I didn’t hear if someone was in my home or an alarm went off or if I had forgotten to turn something off of the stove because I didn’t hear it beep,” said Simon. “One time I left water on all day long because I didn’t hear it running. Now that I have Mister, I could buy my first alarm clock because he could wake me.” As public servants, it is important that we are aware of the legal and customer service issues related to service animals in order to better serve the public.
1. http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html#gen. Accessed November 12, 2015.
Information from NJLA Presentation Welcoming Service Animals into Your Library presented by Les Cameron with Seeing Eye dog MJ; Rick Van Why of Dogs for Warriors; Lisa Berg, founder of Semper Fido; and moderated by Dale Spindel of the Springfield PL
“Meeting a Working Guide Dog Team” pamphlet by National Federation for the Blind, LBG12P Rev5/11
“Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business” by U.S. Department
of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. 2/6/2015 ada.gov/qasrvc.htm