New Legislation will Protect Those who Rely on Service Animals

Posted at: 07/12/2013 8:49 PM
Updated at: 07/14/2013 9:45 PM
By: Naomi Pescovitz

This August, new legislation will protect Minnesotans who rely on service animals for support. The bill, passed unanimously and signed by Governor Mark Dayton this session, means businesses cannot ask for proof that a dog is a service dog.

On a special visit together, Judy Mielke and her retired service dog, Ben, are inseparable.

"The very first day I met him, we bonded right away and that sometimes doesn't happen when you get a new dog," Mielke said.

Mielke is blind and has cerebral palsy. Ben worked with her for 6 years.

Until he hung up his harness earlier this year, their time together was mostly marked by moments of guidance and big hugs when the harness came off.

"He helped me with more than just the physical, physical like helping me pick up things or guide me. He helps to keep me calm in stressful situations too," Mielke said.

On Mother's Day a few years ago their relationship faced its greatest challenge. A restaurant owner told the family, they could not book a reservation with Ben.

"Finally they said, well if you do bring him, we will ask you to leave, and if you don't leave we will call the cops," Mielke.

Mielke filed a discrimination suit and won.

This year, Minnesota is taking its human rights act a step further by deleting a portion that allowed business owners to demand evidence that a service animal is properly trained. The section violates the federal Americans with disabilities act.

"As a practical matter, some people will challenge somebody using a guide dog and ask for proof that it's a guide dog," said Chris Bell, a retired lawyer and disability rights advocate.

Bell, who is blind, also testified to help pass the new bill. Bell does not usually carry his dog's proof of training and has been questioned before.

"I was on a beach with Ryan and he had his harness on, and I don't know whether this person was in charge of the beach, he came over and said, 'you're not allowed to have dogs on the beach.' And I said 'This is a guide dog, and I'm allowed to have him wherever I'm allowed to go.' And he challenged me and said, 'how do I know it's a guide dog?'" Bell said.

"The experience of being challenged doesn't happen all that often, but it does happen, and it did violate federal law," Bell said.

Judy has always carried her identification card for Ben, but it is not because she needs to.

"Just because it's comforting, just to know that he used to work for me and he used to help me and our love together is so strong and our bond is really strong," Mielke said.