* What: Chattanooga Adventures and Assistance Dogs, a support group for people with disabilities and their assistance dogs
* When: 6:30-7:30 p.m. third Thursday every month
* Where: First floor Outpatient Conference Room at Siskin Hospital,
For more information: Call Amy Kerin at 423-697-0957 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
A woman who uses an assistance dog to help her with day-to-day activities wants more merchants to allow such assistance dogs inside businesses.
She also wants to help herself and others like her have a better social life.
So she's starting a support group to help.
Amy Kerin, 38, is the founder of Chattanooga Adventures and Assistance Dogs. She intentionally uses the word "adventures" in the title, she said, because the group isn't for just sitting around.
She's planning dinners, dates and entertainment and, as each outing presents opportunity, she wants to educate owners of establishments on why they should let people with service dogs enter.
Local service dog trainer Romona Nichols, the program director for Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy, said she can testify that there is a social and educational need for such a group.
She noticed from watching her mother and her sister, who have epilepsy, how isolating a disability can be, and she has been denied access into businesses because she has a service dog. A service dog is just as useful to its owner as a wheelchair, she said.
Five years ago, Nichols was denied access into establishments about once every month, she said. Since then, the denials have decreased to about once or twice a year, she said, but more education still is needed.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, privately owned businesses that serve the public are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities, including those with service dogs. The ADA requires restaurants and other businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto the premises in whatever areas customers are allowed, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The fact that people may be allergic to or afraid of dogs does not justify people with service dogs being denied access, according to the ADA.
Henry Edwards, manager of the BI-Lo on Highway 58, said he not only welcomes people with assistance dogs, he does all he can to help them. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department prohibits the store from allowing dogs as pets inside the store, but service dogs are permitted, he said.
Most of the time when she's denied access to a building, Nichols said, she's able to provide a copy of the ADA rule concerning service dogs and explain the essential need for the animal. Most of the time, business owners or employees understand, she said.
Kerin, who is a spina bifida survivor and is mostly in a wheelchair, uses her dog to pick up keys and things she may drop on the floor.
Her support group would educate people about why the public shouldn't try to pet service dogs, explaining that petting the dog while it's working takes the dog's attention away from the person it's supposed to assist, said Kerin. But you can't get mad when people run up and pet the dog because you know they don't understand, she said.