LivAbility Magazine
Ability360 CEO Phil Pangrazio

By Phil Pangrazio, President & CEO, Ability360
Photo by Loren Worthington

Justin Dart always reminded us to “Get involved in politics as if your life depended upon it, because it does!”

These words ring so incredibly true and important today as ever before. The upcoming Presidential election in November is clear proof of that, but so too has been the 2016 session of the Arizona State Legislature. Several bills have been introduced, that if passed, would have widespread impact on the civil rights of people with disabilities.

One was SB 1284, a public accommodations bill that would have significantly compromised the civil rights of people with disabilities and weakened the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Fortunately, it was pulled shortly after passage by the Senate Government Committee and will not move forward in this legislative session. SB1284 would have eliminated the rights of people with disabilities to obtain prompt and complete relief from the state courts by giving business owners 60 days to correct ADA violations before a lawsuit could be filed, thus creating incentives for businesses to be non-compliant to the ADA.

Another one, SB1166 (service animals) has created controversy and a divide in the disability community like no other bill in recent memory. Although we understand that some individuals who use service animals requested this bill in order to seek protection from non-disabled people who fraudulently claim to have a disability, the bill imposes a harsh solution that negatively impacts other people with disabilities who legitimately use service or assistance animals. Unfortunately, Legislators and other policy makers often view any person with a disability as an expert on disability rights. SB 1166 is a clear example of this, but it can lead to terrible results, such as businesses getting sued based on bad advice or lack of knowledge of the facts.

Additionally, some advocates don’t understand the differences in definition between service animal and assistance animal as defined by the ADA, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act. The ADA has a much narrower definition. If passed as is, SB1166 will result in businesses doing additional inquiry beyond the ADA, leading to a violation of our civil rights and subjecting us to civil and criminal penalties and fines. These penalties, if imposed upon a legitimate person with a disability using a service animal, are set at a higher standard than any regular “pet” owner would be subjected to unless the pet actually attacked a person.

People with disabilities should remember that as a community we are stronger when we act together. We can only remain effective in our advocacy if we are united before policy makers. Only then can we accomplish positive results for everyone in our community. This bill is not the answer to the problem of irresponsible pet owners. Many people with totally different disabilities use service or assistance animals and some are less obviously disabled than, say, a person who is blind using a guide dog.

We want our disability community to be proactive self-advocates and good stewards of our civil rights. In fact, I believe Arizona has some of the best advocates in the country. However, we also must be conscious of unintended consequences of our policy initiatives. If you have an issue that impacts public policy but are uncertain of its ramifications, please consider seeking advice from the Arizona Center for Disability Law or Ability360 prior to approaching the Legislature. Doing so can avoid these types of controversies.