published Monday, March 10th, 2014

Service dogs questioned in spite of new Tennessee law

Hamilton, a service dog trained by Chattanooga Goodwill Industries, wears a cap and gown with owner Doug Williams and others at Ooltewah High School in this file photo.
Hamilton, a service dog trained by Chattanooga Goodwill Industries, wears a cap and gown with owner Doug Williams and others at Ooltewah High School in this file photo.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee law changed to make it easier for people who use service dogs to travel around.

But in spite of the new law put in place last year, many blind and other disabled Tennesseans find themselves being illegally questioned or forced to leave whenever they try to shop, go to restaurants or patronize businesses.

The new law ends a requirement that forced disabled people to produce documents about their service dogs or their disability when they patronize businesses. It's a change that puts Tennessee in line with federal law that gives the disabled equal standing in public accommodations.

However, The Tennessean reports that disability advocates say that many businesses simply don't know that the law has changed.

There have been widespread reports that disabled Tennesseans are still being asked for paperwork and frequently have to argue that the law is on their side.

Attorneys with the Disability Law and Advocacy Center say they are hearing many complaints, including one from a man with a service dog who was asked to leave a funeral home and another from a woman with epilepsy ordered not to bring her dog to medical appointments.

"We've been finding that even some of the police don't know what the current laws are," said Jimmy Boehm, a student and a leader in the state's chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. Boehm, who is blind, said his organization has been working with Nashville police and other first responders to help educate them about the change in law.

While searching for a hotel for the training, Boehm said even the hotel employee tried to remind him to get attendees to bring paperwork on their dogs. Boehm told the employee that the law had changed and offered to give an educational talk to the hotel staff.

"We don't just say, 'Hey, you're wrong,'" Boehm said. "We try to educate."

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