For folks who don’t suffer from a disability, it’s easy to take bodily and mental functionality for granted. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean disabled people are at a disadvantage–especially those who have service animals. If you’ve ever seen a dog wearing a vest in public, it was most likely a service animal, or a specially-trained animal that can do work or perform specific tasks or duties for its disabled owner.
Because of the unique nature of what service animals do for their human companions, there are a number of federal and state laws in place to protect both owners and service animals alike. Naturally, the state of Georgia also has a number of statutes that distinguish it from other states here–ones that are worth exploring.
We’re here to delve into these federal and state laws, the similarities and differences they share, and how disabled Georgians with service animals can exercise their rights under them. Read on to learn more.
What Counts as a Service Animal in Georgia?
To understand Georgia’s definition of service animals, we must first understand how the state defines a physical disability: “A physiological deficiency or defect that renders the person unable to move around without aid, or limits the ability to walk, climb, ascend, sit, rise, or perform related functions.” It’s worth pointing out that this definition doesn’t include mental, intellectual, or psychiatric impairments, which affects the definition of service animals in the Peach State.
Unsurprisingly, the state’s definition generally excludes psychiatric service animals. What’s more, service animals are called “assistance animals” in Georgia, and the state defines them as dogs that are or have been trained by a licensed or certified person, organization, or agency to perform physical tasks for a physically disabled person. This definition includes:
- Guide or leader dogs that guide individuals who are blind or legally blind
- Hearing dogs that alert individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to specific sounds
- Service dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness or deafness, which are trained to perform a variety of physical tasks like pulling a wheelchair, lending balance support, picking up dropped objects, or providing assistance in a medical crisis
Psychiatric service animal owners may be able to exploit the loophole in the third provision of the assistance animal definition if they can demonstrate that their psychiatric service animal provides mental, intellectual, or psychiatric assistance for a disability resulting from mobility or sensory impairments.
On the federal level, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” As you can see, this definition is much broader than the state’s, which gives psychiatric service animal owners some wiggle room.
What’s more, the ADA’s definition of service animals could also include animals like miniature horses, provided they can do work or perform disability-specific tasks and duties for their owners. However, it’s worth mentioning that neither definition includes emotional support animals, which are animals that provide their disabled owners emotional support, comfort, or companionship in times of distress.
Despite the therapeutic benefits these animals offer, they differ from service animals in the sense that they receive no special training to perform their tasks or duties for their disabled owners. For these reasons, they do not enjoy the same public accommodations protections that service animals do, as outlined by both the ADA and Georgia state law.
Service Animals in Georgia: Housing Laws
Like many other states, Georgia’s housing laws for disabled people dovetail quite prominently with federal regulations, most notably the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA states that landlords and other housing facilities may not discriminate against disabled people who are buying, selling, renting, leasing, or subletting their properties. Moreover, disabled people can have their service animals or emotional support animals living on the property with them if it means they offer them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home.
One of the most obvious benefits the FHA provides service animal and emotional support animal owners is the waiving of standard animal housing fees, since these animals help them enjoy an equally functional quality of life. However, this does not exempt owners from paying fines in the event of their service animal or emotional support animal damaging the property or hurting someone on the premises. In these instances, owners will be held financially (and sometimes legally) liable for the damages.
To enjoy these FHA protections, you’ll need to provide your landlord with documentation verifying your disability, as well as details on the disability-specific work, tasks, or duties your service animal or emotional support animal performs for you. In the case of emotional support animals, you’ll need to show how your emotional support animal alleviates negative emotional effects in times of distress.
Service Animals in Georgia: Employment Laws
Employment laws are another area where the ADA largely intertwines with Georgia state law. The ADA requires covered employers to provide their disabled employees “reasonable accommodations” while at work. Fortunately, service animals qualify as reasonable accommodations, as they often help their owners adequately perform the tasks their job requires of them.
However, an employer can deny their disabled employee’s request to have their service animal with them at work if it would place “undue hardship” on business operations. For example, a service animal that places a serious financial strain on the business would be an undue hardship. Another instance is if the service animal consistently disrupts or threatens other employees or patrons, thereby causing the business to suffer long-term.
If a disabled person would like to have their service animal accompany them at work, they’ll first need to file either an oral or written request with their employer. A written request is highly recommended, though, as it’s much easier to keep track of for your personal records. In addition to this request, the disabled employee must furnish documentation provided by their doctor or an attending medical professional verifying their disability. They’ll also need documentation explaining why the disabled person needs to have their service animal at work with them, and what disability-specific tasks and duties it can perform.
Employers will also need to offer their disabled employees with service animals at work the flexibility to care for them throughout the workday, whether it’s feeding the service animal or taking it outside to relieve itself.
Service Animal in Georgia: Public Accommodations Laws
Just as it is in most other states, disabled people are free to bring their service animals with them to most public places. Georgia state law includes public transportation, airlines, resorts, places of amusement, and other public accommodations in their definition of public accommodations.
However, the ADA’s definition is much broader, including other places like:
- Restaurants and other establishments that sell food and/or beverages
- Educational institutions
- Hotels and other lodging establishments
- Service establishments
- Commercial and rental establishments
- Social service centers
- Public transportation and terminals, stations, and depots
- Exercise and recreational facilities including zoos, parks, gyms, and bowling alleys
- Places of public gathering, including auditoriums and convention centers
- Places where items are collected and publicly displayed for use and/or enjoyment, including libraries and museums
- Places of exhibit and entertainment, including theaters and sports stadiums
Although it’s illegal for any public accommodation to charge you an extra fee to have your service animal with you, you will be financially liable should your service animal cause any damages to the property, much like FHA provisions.
What’s more, you and your service animal may be asked to leave the premises if it’s posing a direct threat to public health and/or safety. An example of this is if your service animal is behaving aggressively or snapping and lunging at other patrons. In these instances, ADA public accommodations provisions will not protect your rights.
How to Register Your Service Animal on USAA
To register your service animal on our website, click here. For just under $80, you’ll get:
- Lifetime registration for your service animal in the United States’ largest service animal database
- A Service Animal Registration Photo ID Card
- A Registration Certificate for your service animal
- Digital copies of your Registration Certificate, immediately available for download
- The option to order a vest for your service animal
- Full, 24/7 access to our legal team and support staff
In addition, you’ll receive a small card explaining these service animal laws and your rights, so that you can present it when asked about the legal status of your service animal. However, please note that registering your service animal with USAA will not afford you any special rights that are not already provided by the ADA and Georgia state law.
Final Thoughts on These Incredible Animal Caretakers
As you can see, federal and state laws intertwine nicely to afford disabled Georgians a well-rounded set of rights so that their service animals can accompany them through daily tasks and living. Thanks to these comprehensive provisions, disabled residents of Georgia have the freedom to live fully functional lives.