Md. disability advocates on what can be done to improve service animal access, address shortage 

There’s been a lot of progress to accommodate people with disabilities in Maryland, but there is still more room for improvement — including what to do about the nationwide shortage of service dogs.

Disability advocacy groups from across the state held a meeting Monday afternoon about the important and essential animals that help those with disabilities. The forum, in honor of Disability Pride Month, aimed to educate the public about the growing use of service animals in the state.

On whether the public was more aware of service dogs and other animals these days, Mid-Atlantic ADA Center associate director Nancy Horton said, “It is getting easier out in public than what it used to be 10 years ago.”

While these animals are integral parts of many daily activities, advocates in the meeting pointed out that access for these lifesaving companions can still be improved.

For example, some buildings in the state restrict animal access or charge extra fees for pets.

“These are the kind of rules that covered entities may need to modify, so that individuals with disabilities can be monitored by service animals,” Horton said.

Participants considered the recently passed Maryland Senate Bill 535, signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore, as a huge win. They said the legislation is a great tool for eliminating discriminatory housing practices for service animals, especially those that have retired and still live with their owners.

Before the law was passed, retired service animals that no longer performed their old duties could be forced out of restrictive apartments.

“It’s still a highly trained animal, and there should be no reason to force a handler to make a very difficult decision to take that animal out of a housing situation,” said speaker Matt Hackert, a nonvisual access technology specialist at the National Federation of the Blind.

The meeting also discussed the nationwide shortage of service dogs, which is prevalent in Maryland.

Diane Bernier, executive director of Fidos for Freedom, a Maryland organization that trains service dogs, said that they have a two-year waiting list.

“You can only push through so many dogs,” Bernier said. “And you want to make sure those dogs are the right dogs.”

Part of the issue, she said, is that many of their trainers are volunteers who also work, so they’re always looking for another set of hands.

“Always, more volunteering at these organizations will help,” Bernier said when asked how community members could do their part. It typically takes a minimum of 18 months to train a service dog.

Advocates said that they are going to continue to push for more access and expand outreach.

The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, Department of Veterans Affairs, Developmental Disabilities Council, Center for Developmental Disabilities, and representatives from the Mid-Atlantic ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Center co-hosted the public forum.

Matt Kaufax

If there's an off-the-beaten-path type of attraction, person, or phenomenon in the DC area that you think more people should know about, Matt is your guy. As the features reporter for WTOP, he's always on the hunt for stories that provide a unique local flavor—a slice of life if you will.

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