IAADP
International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners


THE DOG PHOBIA CASE

by Joan Froling

Wilson Hulley was partnered with a NEADS service dog in June, 1995. In addition to retrieving and other tasks, his black lab, Star, is trained to act as a buffer when Wilson Hulley rides public transport, such as the bus and train system in Washington DC. She prevents the kind of bumps that trigger off waves of intense pain from a nerve disorder. He also has fought his way back from a disabling brain injury sustained in a taxi cab accident.

Wilson works in an executive capacity for an Agency called the President's Committee on the Employment of People With Disabilities. While going through team training at NEADS, he received a fax from his supervisor, telling him he could not bring his service dog to work when he returned home. An employee with a diagnosed dog phobia claimed the ADA protected her from having to put up with dogs in the workplace. A hearing dog partner and a service dog partner already worked in the 37 person office, and she had never voiced a complaint about them. However, she reportedly told her superiors that "three dogs in the office would be her breaking point."

Efforts to resolve this problem by the Agency and the EEOC failed to appease the dog phobic employee. She rejected the list of reasonable accommodations that Hulley had proposed and she verbally agreed to before he left for NEADS. He didn't have to offer those accommodations at the time, but did so in an effort to be sensitive to her apparent fear of dogs. These had included keeping his dog leashed to his desk at all times; buying a pad with cedar shavings to keep down any risk of fleas, which the dog would lie on under his desk; frequent baths for the dog, and promising he wouldn't bring the dog to staff meetings. He also had let her know if she needed to give him a memo, mail, whatever, she could buzz him at his desk and he'd go down to her office without the dog to pick them up.

The President's Committee ordered Wilson Hulley to work out of his home. He was forbidden to come to the office with his black Lab, Star. A thirty day deadline for a dispute resolution came and went. August gave way to September. Finally Agency officially asked the Department of Labor (DOL) to settle this conflict between the needs of the employee with a dog phobia and those of the three assistance dog partners in the office. All three assistance dog partners had to supply documentation of their disabilities from their doctors as well as documenting the benefits of having their assistance dog in the workplace.

Both Wilson Hulley and Sheila O'Brien of NEADS got in touch with the IAADP, very worried about the impact of a negative decision on all assistance dog partners. If the DOL decided that one, two or all three dogs should be banned as a reasonable accommodation for the dog phobic co-worker, the business community would follow that ruling too. Many disabled persons with a guide dog, hearing dog or service dog could be out of a job, for many of us rely heavily on our assistance dogs in order to maintain employment. Assistance dogs can help disabled persons to get up and get ready for work, assist us in traveling back and forth to work, and enable us to function with independence while on the job. Sooner or later, though, if you didn't have an employee who claimed to have a disabling case of "dog phobia" in your workplace, it would probably be a customer or an inspector telling your boss to get rid of the dog as a reasonable accommodation they are entitled to under ADA. Anyone and everyone with any reason to dislike the presence of a dog in their vicinity could hop on the dog phobia bandwagon. The potential for abuse was chilling.

After studying all the documentation of the case faxed to us by Wilson Hulley, and because of the potential for serious consequences to the rights of assistance dog partners in the workplace, we agreed to publish a letter from Wilson in our next newsletter. It described the case and asked our readers for help. As editor, I also put the letter on the Internet. Just before we went to press, however, Sheila O'Brien and Wilson Hulley phoned to announce a victory in the dog phobia case. The Department of Labor suddenly decided that they did not need to rule on this case, for the ADA and the Rehab Act already covered it. They weren't going to favor the rights of the dog phobic employee over the right of an assistance dog partner for a reasonable accommodation. The rights of BOTH parties to have a reasonable accommodation of their needs was thus affirmed. Banning an assistance dog from the office could not be part of a reasonable accommodation offered to, or demanded by a dog phobic co-worker.

The President's Committee swiftly settled the case by granting the dog phobic employee the accommodations that Wilson Hulley had originally proposed in June. In addition, they will try to work out a system with the phones and intercom, so that a light will flash on the phone of the employee with the dog phobia if any of the assistance dog partners leave their desks accompannied by their dogs. The dog phobic worker has the option of avoiding the cafeteria or the part of the building where the assistance dogs are up and about. When the employees return to their desks, they will notify the woman with the dog phobia so she can go about her business.

For a while there, with Wilson Hulley and Star sitting at home, more and more proofs being demanded of him and the others, our access rights seemed to teeter on the brink. It was especially difficult to stomach that this was happening at the President's Committee On the Employment of People with Disabilities, which is supposed to be a shining example to the business community on how to accommodate the various needs of disabled employees. The very Agency that should have been championing the rights of assistance dog partners suddenly seemed to be threatening them, by bending over backwards to accommodate someone with an alleged dog phobia.

Most people when they first heard about the case, furnished brilliant arguments on why dog phobia was not a disability entitled to reasonable accommodation from an employer. A few individuals, whose opinions I respect, cautioned me that we couldn't fight this threat to our access rights by attacking the disability of the other party. Her disability was not the main issue. They were right. Even if someone successfully argued that this particular woman with a dog phobia didn't qualify under ADA or the Rehab Act for a reasonable accommodation, sooner or later somebody else was going to come along with some disability, like an allergy, that could be documented and if severe enough, qualify the person to ADA protection. So what happened for us in the long run, as a result of Wilson Hulley's battle for access rights is far better than if we received the ruling many of us wanted to hear in the beginning -- namely, that a person with a dog phobia is not covered by ADA. The ruling we received is that no matter who comes along claiming ADA protection as the reason for challenging our access rights in the workplace, assistance dog partners cannot be forced by their employer to leave their service animals at home as a way of accommodating another disabled worker's needs.

This case will serve our cause well, for it sets a significant precedent. It strengthened our access rights. For a while there, nobody seemed to know how to interpret the ADA on this kind of challenge. Remember, from June to October, no one at the President's Committee and EEOC seemed to think it was a grave injustice for Wilson Hulley to be forced to work at home in order to accommodate the rights of the dog phobic employee. They believed they were doing the best that they could under ADA to handle this type of conflict. That's frightening, from our standpoint. But all's well, that ends well. And this case ended with quite a victory. Once again, the President's Committee is to be congratulated for setting a shining example for business and industry to follow, an example which broadcasts far and wide, the message that assistance dogs in the workplace are here to stay.

Reprinted from Partners Forum Volume 2 Number 3

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