Supporting Service Animals for Children with Disabilities

We submitted an amicus brief to the Third Circuit in support of a student who was denied the right to bring her service dog to school. The child, who has epilepsy, uses a service dog trained to detect seizures before their onset and to respond to seizures. In addition, the service dog provides the child with support for panic and anxiety arising from seizures. At trial, the court refused to instruct the jury on regulations governing the use of service dogs and that issue is now on appeal.

In the amicus brief, we speak to the fact that service animals play a crucial role in the lives of individuals living with a disability. Research shows that children receive multiple benefits due to the companionship of a service animal. Benefits include a reduction in heart rate and arterial pressure, as well as a decrease in behavioral stress. In addition, service dogs have been noted for assisting in the development of a child—increasing the child’s social interactions and independence as well as improving their psycho-social functioning.

Moreover, service dogs provide safety to children diagnosed with autism and epilepsy. For example, children with autism tend to wander off, so service dogs are trained to always remain near the child, slowing and even stopping the child when needed. Seizure assistance dogs have been trained to bark at the onset of a seizure, lie down next to someone having a seizure to prevent injury, and even activate alarm systems.

Our brief also highlights the legislative history of the service animal regulations which are intended to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not separated from their service animals. Although service animals are necessary for many individuals living with disabilities, discrimination and misunderstanding around service animals still exist. The regulations on service animals require places of public accommodation to permit the use of service animals as a reasonable accommodation except where that use would fundamentally alter the nature of the services, program or activity or would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Nevertheless, schools have been hesitant to allow service dogs in the classroom. In one case, a school district did not believe that the dog qualified as a service animal. In another case, a young student was denied the right to bring his service dog because the school believed the dog would cause disruption. We are asking the court to properly enforce the laws guaranteeing the right of a person with a disability to remain with their service animal.