D.C. woman pushes to redefine District’s service animal laws

December 13, 2012

After 18 years of living in the District, Tyffany Kidd knows her daily routine pretty well. At 6:30 every morning, she wakes up, checks her e-mail and sets out to walk her service dog, Brad. Weather permitting, she might stroll by the National Cathedral or check out a favorite performer at Georgetown’s Blues Alley.

But there’s one routine occurrence that Kidd, 41, could do without. She’s often confronted by employees when Brad enters a business. She’s experienced it before, in pharmacies, restaurants, office buildings and even in the condominium where she lives.

To remedy the problem, Kidd spent almost a year drafting legislation that redefines a service animal, who can own one and where they can travel. In 2011, she collaborated with D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who introduced Kidd’s bill in March 2011. Bill 19-161, better known as the Service Animals Access Amendment, will undergo its last council hearing Tuesday.

Federal laws such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibit businesses and housing providers from discriminating based on the presence of a service animal. Its protections extend to both the mentally and physically disabled.

But D.C. laws don’t include the mentally disabled, and they define a service animal as one that assists only the blind or deaf.

If passed, the new law would extend service animal ownership privileges to those with both physical and mental disabilities, and to those with disabilities not readily apparent.

The bill also expands the type of animal that can be considered to include cats and birds.

Additional provisions allow emotional support animals — used for comforting purposes — to qualify as service animals. Another provision outlines what information a housing provider may ask of an individual who requires a service animal.

“Our laws are antiquated,” Kidd said. “The world is changing. Demographics are changing. And people have needs that often require accommodations due to some sort of physical, mental or intellectual disability.”

Kidd thinks reforming service animal laws could serve multiple purposes, namely educating the public on the many disabilities that exist and possibly promoting workplace sensitivity training. “This would be so educational and informative,” she said. “Definitely a step in the right direction.”

For Kidd, helping create the legislation has been a rewarding and validating experience.

“Never in a million years would I have considered myself a dog person,” she said with a laugh as the Bichon Frise mix relaxed in her arms. “But I honestly believe Brad saved my life. He gave me something to live for.”

Originally from New Jersey, Kidd moved to Washington when she was 20. A former classical pianist, she was enamored with the city’s underground jazz scene. But in the following years, she began to struggle with her own invisible disability, characterized by anxiety, depression and claustrophobia. She grew introverted and, for the most part, housebound.

In 2010, she met with a dog breeder and purchased Brad on a whim. Although she first sought out Brad for companionship, she soon discovered he could assist her with more complex tasks, including leading her out of a crowd if she became anxious or overwhelmed.

With assistance from Hedda Garland, who runs School of Dogs, a Northwest-based dog training school, Kidd learned to hone Brad’s service dog skills. Under Garland, Kidd was also taught to expect the occasional brusque comment from a business owner or bystander and how to respond accordingly.

“There’s a lot of public education that needs to be done,” said Garland, who has been turned away from shopping malls with dogs she had hoped to acclimatize to busy public spaces. “The public doesn’t know what they’re allowed to ask, or what the person with the animal has to reveal.”

On Tuesday, the bill will be deliberated at 11 a.m. in the Council Chamber, Room 500 at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. With mayoral approval, it would go to Congress for final consideration. With congressional approval, it would likely become law by February. The hearing is open to the public.

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