Guest Blog Post WRITTEN BY Jennifer Grant
Service dogs are becoming increasingly common for individuals with a wide range of disabilities, including mobility issues, seizure disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These dogs are trained to do a range of tasks, from opening doors to turning on light switches. Seizure detection dogs can even detect an oncoming seizure and warn their owner.
Individuals who use service dogs can often carry out normal lives, but they sometimes run into obstacles when they take their service dog to new places. Fortunately, employers can do their part to help support people who use service dogs without risking very much: Service dogs are required to be very well-trained and must behave impeccably in stressful environments.
For many employers, it may be practical to implement an open pet policy. Here are five key reasons why an animal-friendly workplace is beneficial to your employees.
1. The Americans with Disabilities Act
In 1990, the U.S. government implemented the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires businesses and schools to make accommodations for people with disabilities. This includes policies related to wheelchair accessibility, modified working conditions and other areas where a person with disabilities might need "reasonable accommodations."
The ADA is somewhat vague about what constitutes "reasonable accommodations" and how much employers are required to do for people with disabilities. Accommodating service dogs is simple, though, and is understood to be required under the ADA unless there is a clear health or safety issue involved. Violating the ADA can result in both civil penalties and damage to your company's reputation.
A service-dog-friendly workplace includes access to relief areas and water for the animals, as well as enforcement of any rules to protect the service dog. For example, the employer needs to have a policy prohibiting interference with a service dog, which includes petting or deliberate distractions. It's important to note the ADA only covers service animals — not emotional support animals — and animals other than dogs are not included. The key difference is that service animals are trained to do a specific task, whether it's guiding a blind person or simply staying by a PTSD patient's side during a panic attack. Emotional support animals are not trained in the same way, but an open pet policy would include them and would eliminate the potential landmine of having to differentiate between different employees' animals based on disability.
2. Honoring Veterans
Our veterans put their lives on the line, but sometimes it's easy to forget the wide range of dangers they are exposed to in the military. Even military members who aren't on the front lines can find themselves suddenly injured or mortally endangered as conditions change. Those who narrowly avoid harm can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), becoming sensitive to gunshots, fireworks and other sudden noises. Traumatic brain injuries can happen in the blink of an eye and can cause a range of permanent injuries.
Veterans both young and old can encounter challenges returning to civilian life, and those challenges are exacerbated if the veteran has a disability that requires the use of a service dog. PTSD, seizure disorders and other issues stemming from traumatic brain injuries are not always well-understood, but doctors are increasingly advising service dogs or emotional support animals for veterans with long-term combat-related injuries.
In other words, many veterans require service dogs or emotional support animals for reasons completely outside their control. Welcoming service dogs in the workplace is simply the right thing to do, especially since veterans are mostly able to lead normal lives when accompanied by their dog. To ask veterans to either forgo their service dog or remain at home unemployed would be hugely disrespectful and harmful.
3. Educating Others
People with disabilities can sometimes be pushed to the edges of society. Think about the number of stores, apartments and offices that are inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs or walkers. Even if a building has an elevator, that building can become temporarily inaccessible if the elevator is broken.
Many "invisible" disabilities are even harder to remain aware of, so it's easy for everyday people to misunderstand the purposes of service dogs. When accompanying the blind or people who use wheelchairs, service dogs are fairly well-received, but they are less widely recognized when accompanied by a person with PTSD, seizure disorders or other "invisible" disabilities. Having a workplace that welcomes service animals and emotional support animals can increase awareness of varying types of disabilities and can remind employees to support people with disabilities and our veterans as they live fulfilling lives. It can become a teachable moment about being considerate of others who have PTSD and are sensitive to sudden movement or noises or being mindful of doors that are hard for wheelchair users to open.
4. Workplace Skills
It would be a waste for people to be excluded from the workforce just because they have a service dog. Service dog accommodations are a small price to pay for the contributions these individuals can bring. Having an open pet policy goes even further, making your workplace entirely welcoming to animals, so no one feels singled out for having a disability.
Veterans, in particular, bring a diverse range of talents and skills to the workplace. Some receive special training in the military that can translate well to workplace skills, while others just have natural abilities that can help your business reach its full potential.
5. Reducing Stress
Having well-behaved pets around the office can reduce stress and improve morale. Allowing pets might even reduce absenteeism in the workplace. For example, if an employee needs to take her pet to the vet in the afternoon, she might benefit from not having to run home to fetch the pet before heading to the appointment.
Ultimately, if your staff still can get their work done and there are no health or safety issues, animals in the workplace can be an asset to the team. One employee's therapy dog may end up being therapeutic for the whole office!
Many veterans report being able to work, travel and carry out daily tasks with the assistance of a service dog. According to Life Changing Service Dogs For Veterans, one such story is the case of Patrick and Trooper, a soldier and service dog pair matched up in 2015.
Patrick returned from combat and attempted to return to work but found his PTSD and other injuries were making his transition difficult. Even though his new woodworking career was a far cry from the battlefield, he still struggled with trauma triggers. Luckily, Trooper helped manage Patrick's symptoms, and Patrick can now live a full life because of his service dog.
Service dogs are a tried-and-true method of bringing individuals with disabilities back into the workplace to make the most of their skills. It's up to employers to make sure service dogs are fully welcomed and accommodated in the workplace, and an open pet policy can make that process simple. Morale and productivity can be improved when employers thoughtfully implement policies that welcome all employees, regardless of any special accommodations.
Jennifer Grant a devoted military wife, mother of two, and American History buff. She blogs for Americanflags.com, a top provider of American Flags based out of New York State.
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