by Donald Porterfield
From the Editor: Donald Porterfield is the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona and serves as its legislative director. Recently he found out about a proposal to eliminate protections for service dogs, including guide dogs for the blind. Here is an email he distributed in late February, supplemented by an interview I had with him:
On Tuesday, February 17, 2015, the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona and other disability groups were alerted that an amended bill was scheduled for a committee hearing in the Arizona House of Representatives at 9:00 AM on the 19th. The bill (HB 2179) included a Strike all amendment, meaning that the original language of the bill would be replaced with new and unrelated language. If the bill were passed out of committee and subsequently passed into law, it would have fundamentally altered Arizonas service animal law (A.R.S. §11-1024).
Proposed changes would have:
- Required that individuals who use service animals obtain a permit from the Arizona Department of Health Services in order to take their service animal into a public place and that such permit be renewed on a regular basis
- Required that, as part of the permit process, an individual be required to apply to the Arizona Department of Health Services and provide documentation from a medical professional certifying the applicant has a disability
- Required that a service animal wear a vest, also issued by the Arizona Department of Health Services, at all times when in a public place and that this vest display permit information
- Allowed restaurants to block access for persons with service animals in order to meet local and/or state health code regulations
- Required the Arizona Department of Health Services develop a sign for restaurants to display indicating that service animals are not permitted and that a separate sign for other public businesses not serving food be created that indicates service animals are allowed
- Required the Arizona Department of Health Services to petition the United States Department of Justice requesting that the Americans with Disabilities Act be updated to comply with state law.
The National Federation of the Blind of Arizona (NFBA) and several other disability groups reacted quickly and organized an effective response to the proposed legislation. NFBA has an active legislative committee, and, along with members from the Tucson, Phoenix, and East Valley chapters, all of us appeared at the Arizona State Capitol building prior to the start of the meeting in order to register as many people as possible to speak against the bill in the committee hearing. In addition, the NFBA legislative committee appealed to affiliate members who could not personally attend the meeting and asked them to email the committee chair and other committee members urging them to vote against the legislation. We were able to send out approximately thirty emails before the committee hearing started.
During the hearing the committee chair made it clear that his intent was not to pass legislation that imposed greater restrictions on persons with disabilities who require the use of service animals. He said that he intended to craft a bill that punished bad actors, or those individuals who masquerade their pets as service animals for the sole purpose of taking them into places that prohibit pets. This intent was not evident in the wording of the bill. The impetus for this legislation, according to the representative, was a constituent recounting his visit to a restaurant where someone was accompanied by a small dog and the constituents family member was sneezing and alleging that he had an allergy to dogs. The representative never inquired about whether the dog was a service animal. The customer doing the sneezing never complained to the restaurant. The restaurant never questioned whether the animal it had admitted was a service animal. The representative admitted that it was not so much the specifics of this incident that caused him to act but his conjecture that this kind of abuse might be occurring somewhere in his state. Do we now base major changes in state law on hypotheticals and what ifs? Are we no longer motivated by the expressed concerns of our constituents but by our intuition that we should act on their behalf whether or not they have the good sense to ask us? Should we act on behalf of businesses we perceive to be aggrieved even though they have made no request of the Arizona General Assembly?
Many members of the NFBA and the other disability groups testified in opposition to the bill. All testimony given by the public indicated that the stated intent differed from that of the actual bill and that, as written, this bill violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Testimony suggested that, rather than advance a bad bill, a bill should be written that focused on the bad actors rather than persons with disabilities.
At one point during the hearing the process became so confused that the sponsor of the bill thought it had been passed by a vote of two to zero. So disturbed were committee members by the confusion and the supposed vote that the Speaker of the House entered the hearing room, talked with the chairman, and observed as the vote was once again taken.
Due to effective grassroots advocacy by the NFBA and other disability groups, this bill was defeated by a unanimous vote of eight to zero. The committee members who commented on their votes cited the testimony given by the public as strongly influencing their votes.
My thanks and gratitude go out to everyone who participated in the committee hearing, sent emails, and made phone calls. Sometimes we are asked why it is important to be a part of an organization of the blind and whether such organizations really have any influence in the halls of power. Both of these questions were answered at a House hearing in Arizona, and all of us, guide dog or cane users, are the better for our diligence, commitment, and ability to mobilize and articulate our position in a way that is both credible and understandable.