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Bill To Protect Those Who Need Service Animals From Getting Dogged

Service dog with brown and white spots
S. Wong

The sight of a dog lying under the table in an upscale restaurant might result in a double take. Onlookers might scan the animal’s human companion for signs a disability. And it’s when those disabilities aren’t readily apparent that trouble can sometimes arise. A bill moving through the Florida House seeks to protect those with invisible disabilities.

Cesar Silva is a combat veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder along with physical disabilities that he says most people wouldn’t know about.

“People don’t know that I have shrapnel in my back. My spine is messed up and I have various invisible disabilities,” Silva says.

Silva says that can lead to people questioning him about why his service animal, a German Shepard named Sophia, is with him.

Silva says he’s had trouble with people who harass him for having his service animal in public spaces. He's been asked to leave class and work because of his service animal. And he says when he’s asked police officers to step in, he’s been told his best option is to pursue the matter civilly. And Disability Rights Florida board member Heather Hawk says those are the reasons her organization is supporting a measure that would help protect those who need service animals.

"It’s kind of scary when you go into a business and you’re always wondering you know, I don’t look like a person with a disability. How much of a hassle am I going to get today? Am I going to be forced to leave? So, it really impacts our lives and it can be a struggle,” Hawk says.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Smith (R-Inverness).

“HB 71 will designate that service animals are to be dogs and miniature horses, allow businesses the tools they need to have a clear understanding of their rights and lastly will create a penalty for those who misrepresent the need to use a service animal,” Smith says.

During a House State Affairs Committee Smith thanked Silva for both his service and his willingness to share his story.

“This is a great day when you have veterans with PTSD who are willing to come and get past that issue to let you know how this is important to them and how this is going to affect their future. We often talk about helping people – you’ve just been given an example, a wonderful example of what we are going to do to help our veterans,” Smith says.

Smith filed a similar bill last year requiring public accommodations to permit the use of service animals, but the measure got pushback from groups that raised concerns about people without disabilities claiming a pet is a service animal. Smith says his bill seeks to combat that problem. Under the measure anyone who falsely claims to be training or have a disability requiring a service animal faces a second degree misdemeanor. That person would also be required to spend 30 hours helping an organization that serves people with disabilities.