Sunday, June 8, 2014

Discriminatory Regulations Proposed by the National Park Service


Maeve & Joanne at Mammoth Visitor Center, Yellowstone NP
The new regulations proposed by the National Park Service in regard to animals have at least two provisions which discriminate against people with disabilities who use service dogs.  I've submitted my comments officially. You can read those comments here and there's a link at the bottom to the full text of the proposed regulations. Note: while some of what I'm against in these regulations sounds quite reasonable and common-sense, it really is discriminatory. In the bad old days of the 1950s it was quite reasonable that "white" people shouldn't have to sit next to "colored" people in a restaurant or share the same water fountain because "coloreds" could transmit diseases or be criminals (as if whites couldn't) -- this is much the same as the health and safety concerns of the National Park Service about service dogs. There are safety and health concerns, it's possible some service dogs could cause a problem, but other people and/or their dogs could cause the same problems. The difference in treatment is because one group stands out and is more noticeable and because it's easier to impose restrictions on a small group of people. That's discrimination and it's illegal, not just under the Americans with Disabilities Act (which does not directly apply to the NPS), but also under a civil rights act called the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which DOES apply to federal agencies like the NPS).  Here is how I commented on the changes: 

I have a unique set of qualifications to comment on the proposed regulations as they affect people with disabilities who use service dogs in National Park Service properties
  • I have been determined to be 100% disabled by the U.S. Social Security Administration
  • I have trained and worked with a service dog trained to do work and tasks specific to my disability for the past four years
  • I have been a mental health advocate since 2010. My advocacy specialty is the rights of people with psychiatric disabilities to assistance animals under federal civil rights laws, including the FHA, ADA, ACAA, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • I provide outreach, education, and mentoring to individuals and I educate groups, including:
    • providing in-service training for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (two years running)
    • presenting a workshop at the Alternatives 2012 conference In Portland, Oregon, sponsored by the Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • During the four years I have used a service dog I have crossed the U.S. a half dozen times and spent the majority of my time camping and hiking primarily on public lands (state, BLM, National Forest, Corps of Engineers, etc.), including at least 33 visits to the following National Park Service properties with my service dog:
    • Chiricahua, Arizona
    • Craters of the Moon, Idaho
    • El Malpais, New Mexico
    • Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico (twice)
    • Natural Bridges, Utah
    • Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona (three times)
    • Acadia, Maine (four times)
    • Arches, Utah
    • Badlands, South Dakota
    • Bryce Canyon, Utah
    • Capitol Reef, Utah
    • Glacier, Montana
    • Grand Canyon, Arizona
    • Grand Teton, Wyoming
    • Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee-North Carolina
    • Joshua Tree, California
    • Mesa Verde, Colorado
    • Petrified Forest, Arizona
    • Redwood, California
    • Saguaro, Arizona
    • Sequoia, California
    • Yellowstone, Wyoming-Montana-Idaho
    • Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
    • Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi
    • Lake Mead, Nevada-Arizona
    • Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Maine to Georgia
    • Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts


COMMENTS:

The policies expressed in NPS Director's Order #42  "to make NPS facilities, programs, and services accessible to and usable by as many people as possible, including those with disabilities" have served me well in my use of the NPS properties. I applaud the NPS for its intention to continue to "align its regulations with the ADA and make NPS facilities, programs, and services accessible to and usable by as many people as possible, including those with disabilities" and "to follow, as appropriate, the DOJ regulations that implement title II and III of the ADA."

I am confident that our nation's NPS is no less capable of meeting the standards set by the DOJ than are the non-federal parks, zoos, wildlife preserves, and campgrounds across the United States all of which are covered by the ADA Title II and/or II.

Discrimination is not always obvious, especially when it appears to be based on logical reasons. Before the ADA, it didn't seem discriminatory to exclude children in wheelchairs from public school. Schools had stairs and narrow passages. A wheelchair could become an obstacle in an evacuation and could cause the death not only of the child in it, but those behind it as well.  Not excluding the child would be considered terribly negligent. Even many people with disabilities might have agreed.

Any school doing that today would end up paying the Department of Justice a hefty civil penalty and paying their own and the child's attorneys fees' after a civil suit as well.  The intention of the ADA was to cause a sea change in the acceptance of people with disabilities and the devices and/or animals they use to mitigate their disabilities. It forced government and business to be inclusive and to think differently about access. The problem was not the child in the wheelchair; the problem on which they should focus was the evacuation.

To a great extent the proposed regulations are consistent with the DOJ's  ADA regulations and the intention of Order #42. However, in reading the NPS proposed regulations changes I found two areas in the document that, while well intended, are discriminatory because they focus on the person with a disability as the problem rather than looking with a wider view at the actual problem of wildlife health and safety.

FIRST: REQUIRING HEALTH AND VACCINATION RECORDS AND CLOSING AREAS TO SERVICE ANIMALS

"(5) Upon determining that the use of service animals in a specific areas poses a threat to the health or safety of people or wildlife, the superintendent may require proof of current vaccinations, impose additional conditions or restrictions, or close the area to service animals. any area closed to service animals must be closed to pets. In determining whether the use of service animals poses a threat under this paragraph, the superintendent must: (1) Make a written determination based on objective evidence evaluating the nature, probability, duration and severity of the threat, and (ii) Explain in the written determination why less restrictive measures will not suffice."

Allowing parks to require a disabled person to show vaccination records and be able to prove current treatment for parasites or closing an area to them as described above is discriminatory. In addition, the reference to health and safety of people should be removed entirely. When would the risk to people in a park exceed that in a busy emergency department treatment room, a neonatal ward, etc. -- all places where the DOJ requires service dogs be allowed and the Center for Disease Control concurs?

In an unusual situation where service dogs are "likely" to pose a threat to the health of wildlife, significant measures must also be taken to reduce the threat posed by other groups of people and their dogs. The superintendent should be required to document that all such measures have been put in place before imposing restrictions on the protected class of people with disabilities.

Service dogs alone are quite unlikely to be the primary threat to the health of wildlife because:

  • The DOJ guidelines require service dogs be under the control of their handler at all times and be leashed unless it is necessary for them to be unleashed to perform their work. This significantly limits the exposure of wildlife to service dogs.
  • It is acceptable under DOJ guidelines to require service dog handlers to dispose of their dogs' waste properly (including a pack-it-out rule where appropriate) and we are highly compliant with dog waste disposal regulations/instructions. We are no strangers to poop bags.
  • With the possible exception of veterinarians who own dogs there is no group of people LESS likely to skip basic vaccinations and heartworm treatment than service dog handlers. A fully trained service dog often costs $20,000 to $35,000 which is NOT covered by medical insurance or Medicare. They cannot be replaced quickly. One usually spends many months, in some cases years, on a waiting list. Owner-trained dogs take no less time to replace as they require thousands of hours of work to rear, socialize, and train. While one waits or trains one is left without assistance; there is no such thing as a rental dog to cover the gap.

Note: Concerns about "fake" service dogs also are not a legitimate excuse to discriminate under DOJ guidelines, and those people unethical enough to lie their way through the questions allowed by the ADA are unethical enough to type up their own fake medical records. Both my dog's rabies certificate and vaccination record could be typed from scratch in minutes by any dog owner  -- they are simple text on plain white office paper.

Compare a national park with a neonatal unit in a hospital, which under the ADA may not require any documentation, including a rabies certificate, of a service dog handler.  A rabid dog certainly is a severe danger to newborns and recovering new mothers, but the Center for Disease Control has no problem with service dogs in hospitals. It's possible they could transmit rabies, but not likely enough to warrant infringing on the right of their handlers to go about their lives as do people who are not yet disabled.

Why? Any human visitor is more likely than a service dog to pass a deadly infection to an infant or others on the ward. We are used to seeing grandmothers, friends, etc., in hospitals -- they don't stand out on the ward the way a service dog does.  It is natural, but illogical, for humans to believe that the unusual is more dangerous than the commonplace. People who use service dogs suffer from discrimination as a result of such exaggerated perception of the risks they pose compared to the risks others pose.

Let's take parvo as an example. Wolf populations can be severely affected by an outbreak of the deadly canine parvo virus spread originating with infected dogs. At first glance it seems that service dogs would be a significant risk and asking for proof of vaccination logical.  However:
  • Service dogs are not likely to be unvaccinated,
  • A vaccinated dog can still spread the virus by having eaten or stepped in the vomit or feces of an infected dog. I've never seen a national park campground that is clean of dog feces. Even if the park allows no pets, the rest stops on the highways leading to it are always littered with dog feces.
  • Any human being can spread the virus via clothing, equipment, or shoes -- even if they do not have a dog with them and even if they do not own a dog. Parvo is ubiquitous in cities and towns. It is long-lived and survives laundering. Hiking boots with their deep treads often are contaminated with feces and would require disinfecting with a bleach solution to kill the virus.

The fact that it is so much easier to ask service dog handlers for documentation than to inquire of or enforce restrictions on a greater number of people does not make it legal, rational, or appropriate to do so before regulating those other people.

Before imposing bureaucratic procedures on service dog handlers a superintendent should be required to document in writing that he/she has first taken all feasible measures that do not single out people with disabilities and should be required to keep those measures in force as long as there are restrictions on people with disabilities.  The following are examples of what measures might be taken to control parvo before and during any restrictions on the users of service dogs:
  • Prohibiting young puppies from entering the park.
  • Requiring vaccination records for every dog that enters the national park. An infected pet could contaminate clothing and gear or stray away or be killed and taken into the backcountry by a predator.
  • Asking those from states without rabies vaccination laws such as Kansas and Missouri whether they own a dog (people who don't have to vaccinate for rabies are more likely not to vaccinate for parvo) and, if so, requiring proof of vaccination even if the dog is not accompanying them.
  • Providing poop bags and disposal sites in all areas pets are allowed and policing those areas frequently.
  • Providing shoe/gear sanitation stations
  • Taking extreme measures against local dogs, including hunting dogs, who might cross the park borders.
  • Requiring a permit for hiking. Sample questions: "Have you handled a puppy, do you volunteer for a shelter or rescue, have you been to a pet store, have you hiked or camped anywhere where there was a lot of dog feces? Are you going to be hiking in the shoes you wore then or using the same gear here?” These are similar to questions currently asked when issuing cave permits used to protect bats from white nose syndrome.

SECOND: REQUIRING DEMONSTRATION OF RECALL

"(2) A service animal must be controlled at all times with a harness, leash, or other tether, unless the restraint device would interfere with the service animal's safe, effective  performance of work or tasks or the individual's disability prevents using these devices. In those cases the disabled individual must be able to recall the service animal to his or her side promptly using voice, signals, or other effective means of control. This must be demonstrated when requested by an authorized person." [emphasis added]

The ADA does not allow anyone to subject a person with a disability to a test as a requirement for access and there is no compelling reason NPS staff need to do so. Under DOJ guidelines, if a service animal is causing a problem because it is not under control, the person can be directed to bring it back under control. If the person cannot quickly restore control the person may be ordered to remove it from the park. That is sufficient to deal with the rare occasion of a problem service dog off-leash.


WHY DISCRIMINATION MATTERS GREATLY

Adding unnecessary stress to the lives of people with disabilities of any type is cruel and can easily prevent those people from fully enjoying the use of a national park. In fact some of them could be denied access entirely. Any sort of confrontation with a park ranger is stressful, especially if the ranger is demanding something the person with a disability cannot easily provide.

A disproportionate number of the people with disabilities subjected to these regulations will have psychiatric diagnoses and/or brain injuries and will be more vulnerable than the average person to such confrontations. The number of veterans with dogs trained for PTSD or TBI assistance alone is significant. People with brain disabilities are more likely to be 100% disabled (and thus have more time to do outdoor activities) and are more likely to be physically able to participate in many of the activities available in a national park.

People with brain disabilities also are the most likely to be injured by unnecessary restrictions or inappropriate questions.They might well leave and never come back -- which actually was my first reaction when an ill-trained ranger at my first of Yellowstone’s visitor centers yelled from across the visitor center at me to “get that dog out of here” as soon as I entered with my vested and perfectly behaved service dog. I spent an entire day in my campsite at Craters of the Moon too sick to drive or hike safely after an inappropriate challenge to my use of a service dog in an outdoor auditorium. Possible reactions from a disabled person might include panic attacks, bursting into tears, dissociating, becoming enraged, etc. None of these things should be the price of entry to a national park.

If you’re going to question, demand documents, or test the abilities of such people, the rangers will need training in dealing appropriately with people with brain disabilities. My experience in many NPS properties tells me that NPS has not been able to provide effective staff training about even basic information about service dogs. As to invisible disabilities, many are completely clueless. When I told a ranger standing outside the main entrance at the Mammoth Visitor Center that I couldn’t use the tiny, inaccessible ladies room because there wasn’t enough room for my service dog, he directed me to go around the building through an area closed off to the public because an elk was birthing her calf. This was so I could get to the wheelchair entrance in the back and take the elevator from there to the only accessible bathroom. I was dressed in hiking clothing and boots and the ranger had watched me easily walk up to him. On my way back down I realized the elevator stopped at the main floor of the visitor’s center. He could have directed me up the few steps to the main entrance without disturbing the elk and without exposing me to other annoyed rangers who tried to stop me from crossing the restricted area. It never occurred to him that I didn’t need the wheelchair entrance.

Specific to inoculations records and proof of heartworm treatment, how would people with disabilities would know -- before they reached the park -- that they needed it? No other entity in the entire country can require this for public access. I don’t routinely carry this in my purse, let alone in my backpack. Effective communication would require an expensive, on-going publicity campaign the NPS which would further burden the already insufficient budget allocations available to make NPS facilities accessible.


AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE DISCRIMINATORY PORTIONS OF THE PROPOSED REGULATIONS:

It is not illegal to offer additional services and information to people with disabilities. An information packet that included information about possible problems a service dog could cause mixed in with useful information to enhance the health, safety, and enjoyment of a handler/service animal team would accomplish much of what the inappropriate parts of the proposed regulations intend. A service dog liaison in the visitor center who could provide such information would be another example.

I would have loved to have had information about the poisons my dog would encounter on the boardwalks of Yellowstone BEFORE I spent a full day not only working her bare-pawed on the boardwalks but also repeatedly "downing" her shaved belly on them while I snapped pictures -- and subsequently spending several extra days in my campsite at Mammoth waiting for her to recover. Information in Saguaro National Park  that a cougar may be attracted by a person running with a dog and attack from behind without warning is something with real value to a service dog user. I really appreciated a ranger warning me about the sharpness and abrasiveness of the lava rock on the trails of Craters of the Moon.

Combining such helpful information with concerns and suggestions, e.g., to keep the wolves safe from parvo, would likely get a very positive and cooperative response from service dog handlers.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

Joanne Shortell


Joanne Shortell, Maeve's Service Human

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Joanne Shortell, Maeve's Service Human We would LOVE to speak to your group free of charge



Joanne and Maeve (her psychiatric service poodle) help people with psychiatric disabilities discover their rights to emotional support animals in no-pets housing without pet deposits or pet fees and their rights to service dogs

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