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what qualifies as a service dog disability
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Wondering What Disabilities Qualify For a Service Dog?

What disabilities qualify for a service dog? This is a difficult question to answer because there are multiple entities that protect and govern people with disabilities who use service animals in the U.S. In this article we will break it down to be able to better understand what qualifies as disability for a service animal under different contexts.

To begin, let’s break down the various service animal laws in the U.S. to get an idea of the general big picture.

What disabilities qualify for a service dog in the U.S.
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Working K9 “Remmi” @working.collie.remmi

Jump to a section:

  1. ADA Introduction
  2. The Five ADA Titles
  3. Fair Housing Act
  4. Air Carrier Access Act
  5. ADA Definition of Disability
  6. ADA & Employment
  7. Conclusion
Border Collie ADA Service Dog
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Border Collie @celestialbordercollies

The Americans With Disabilities Act

The ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a federal wide-ranging civil rights law. It prohibits discrimination based on disability. However, it doesn’t provide a list on what disabilities qualify for a service dog because it’s just not that simple.

Under the ADA, the following “covered entities” that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a business or facility where the public is normally invited or allowed to go.

  • Businesses
  • State governments
  • Local governments
  • Nonprofit organizations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law July 26, 1990. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including:

  • Jobs
  • Schools
  • Transportation
  • All public and private places that are open to the general public

The main purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees equal opportunity for people living with disabilities in:

  • Public accommodations
  • Employment
  • Transportation
  • State and local government services
  • Telecommunications

Other types of people who are protected under the ADA in certain circumstances include:

  1. Those who have an association with someone known to have a disability (such as parents)
  2. Those who are coerced or subjected to retaliation for helping people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA

Good to know

  • The employment provisions of the ADA apply to employers of 15 employees or more
  • Public accommodations provisions apply to all sizes of business, regardless of number of employees
  • State and local governments are covered regardless of size
  • Read more about the federal ADA and FAQ regarding public access rights in the U.S.
ADA Disability Definitions
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Psychiatric Service Dog “Sarge”

The ADA is divided into five sections (known as ‘titles’) that relate to different areas of public life

ADA Title 1 – Employment

Title I requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations. This is for applicants and employees with disabilities. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all aspects of employment.

Reasonable accommodation includes, for example:

  • Restructuring jobs
  • Making work-sites and workstations accessible
  • Modifying schedules
  • Providing services such as interpreters
  • Modifying equipment and policies
  • Title I also regulates medical examinations and inquires

ADA Title II – Public Services

Under Title II, public services cannot deny services to people with disabilities. In addition, they may not deny participation in programs or activities that are available to people without disabilities.

This includes:

  • State and local government agencies
  • The National Railroad Passenger Corporation
  • Other commuter authorities

In addition, public transportation systems, such as public transit buses, must be accessible to people with disabilities. 

ADA Title III – Public Accommodations

Under Title III, Public accommodations include facilities such as:

  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Grocery stores
  • Retail stores
  • Privately owned transportation systems
  • Title III requires that all new construction and modifications must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For existing facilities, barriers to services must be removed if readily achievable. 

ADA Title IV – Telecommunications

Under Title IV, telecommunications companies that offer telephone service to the general public need to have telephone relay service to individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTYs) or similar devices.

ADA Title V – Miscellaneous

This ADA Title V Miscellaneous title includes a provision prohibiting either:

  • Coercing or threatening, or
  • Retaliating against individuals with disabilities or those attempting to aid people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA
Service dog in training ADA laws
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Service Dog In Training – “Bishop”

The Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing. This includes landlords and real estate companies.

It also includes other entities like municipalities, banks or other lending institutions & homeowners insurance companies.

Discriminatory practices that make housing unavailable based on the following is prohibited.

  • Race or color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Familial status
  • Disability

Under the Fair Housing Act

(h) “Handicap” means, with respect to a person–

  1. (1) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities,
    (2) a record of having such an impairment, or
    (3) being regarded as having such an impairment, but such term does not include current, illegal use of or addiction to a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)).
ADA Fair Housing Act Definition of Person with Disability
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Multipurpose Service Dog “Eri” @eri_servicedog

Air Carrier Access Act

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) airlines are required to recognize dogs as service animals. This includes accepting service animals for transport on flights to, within and from the United States.  

Airlines, though not required, are free to transport other species for passengers if they choose to do so.

The Bill of Rights applies to individuals with a disability which is defined in Part 382 as persons with a physical or mental impairment that permanently or temporarily impacts a major life activity such as walking, hearing, or breathing.

U.S. Department of Transportation
Service Dogs ADA Laws
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Goldendoodle Medical Alert Service Dog “Koda” @thatlilbearkoda

ADA Definition of Disability

It is important to remember that in the context of the ADA, “disability” is a legal term rather than a medical one. Because it has a legal definition, the ADA’s definition of disability is different from how disability is defined under some other laws, such as for Social Security Disability related benefits.

Americans With Disabilities Act

The ADA defines a person with a disability as:

  • Someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity
  • This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if the person does not currently have a disability
  • It also includes people who do not have a disability but are “regarded as” having a disability
  • The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability
ADA Service Dog Definitions
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Medical Alert Service Dog @cricket_n_saraphena

What Are Major Life Activities?

Major life activities are simply functions that are important to most people’s daily lives.

Examples of major life activities include:

  • Breathing
  • Walking
  • Talking
  • Hearing
  • Seeing
  • Sleeping
  • Caring for one’s self
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Working

Major life activities also include major bodily functions like:

  • Immune system functions
  • Normal cell growth
  • Digestive functions
  • Bowel functions
  • Bladder functions
  • Neurological functions
  • Brain functions
  • Respiratory functions
  • Circulatory functions
  • Endocrine functions
  • Reproductive functions
ADA Major Live Activities
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“Kylie’s Lucy On Duty” (Lucy) Service Dog @lucytheservicesibe

What Is a “Record” of Having an Impairment?

A record of having an impairment is exactly what it sounds like. It means that the person has a history of, or has been misclassified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

This can be the case even though the person does not currently have a disability.  

For example, someone who underwent treatment for cancer, and then returns to work. Although the cancer may not be in remission, the person does have a record of having had it.

ADA Record of having an impairment
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American Cocker Spaniel Service Dog “Bartek” @bartek_spaniel_wspanialy

What Is Regarded As Having a Disability?

“Regarded as” means:

  • Someone has an impairment but it does not substantially limit a major life activity
  • A person has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity only as a result of the attitudes of others toward them
  • An individual does not have any impairment but is treated by an entity as having an impairment

ADA Example of “Regarded as” Having a Disability

A man, who is in line for a promotion, has a history of cancer treatment, although his cancer is in remission. He is not given the promotion because his bosses are worried that, if his cancer returns, he won’t be able to do the job. He does not, at this point, meet the first part of the definition of disability because he does not have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. However, based on his “record of” a disability, he is being discriminated against.

ADA National Network
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Blue Heeler “Snow Leopard” @snow_leopard_81

ADA & Employment

The ADAAA made major changes to the definition of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) is a civil rights law. It was originally passed by Congress in 1990 as the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

The ADA was amended in 2008 and became effective January 1, 2009.

Employers may question how to determine whether an employee now has a disability.

For ADA purposes, this question usually comes up when an employee requests an accommodation.

The following are practical tips for employers making disability determinations related to accommodation requests.

  • If the requested accommodation is something an employer provides for all employees, then an employer doesn’t need to determine whether the employee has a disability; it can simply give the employee what they asked for
  • If the requested accommodation is not something an employer provides for all employees, then an employer may choose to make a disability determination before granting the accommodation request; the disability determination is not required.
ADA Accommodation request
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“Kylie’s Where I Go, You Go” (Hugo) Service Dog in Training (SDiT) @lucytheservicesibe

The definition of disability is an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. So when determining whether an employee has a disability, employers need to know:

  1. Does the employee have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment affect a major life activity?
  3. Does the impairment substantially limit the major life activity?

Employers must consider how limited the employee would be without any mitigating measures. Consider how limited the employee is when the impairment is active.

If needed, consider the condition, manner, or duration in which an employee performs a major life activity.

The definition of disability is now very broad. If an employer is not sure whether an employee has a disability, err on the side of caution. It’s recommended to process the accommodation request. Accommodations aren’t usually costly. The benefits usually far outweigh the costs.

The ADA does not keep a list of qualified disabilities, since the definition is broad. Accommodations should be made on a case-by-case basis. Each employee’s individual limitations and accommodation needs must be considered.

But here are a few examples of some common disabilities.

  • Addison’s disease
  • Aging
  • Albinism
  • Alcoholism
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Amputation
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)/Lou Gehrig’s Disease
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Arthritis
  • Ataxia
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)
  • Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Autism spectrum
  • Back impairment
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Bladder impairment
  • Bleeding disorder
  • Blindness
  • Brain Injury
  • Cancer
  • Cataplexy
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis
  • Chronic pain
  • Colorblind/Color Vision Deficiency
  • Cumulative Trauma Conditions
  • Deafness
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Drug addiction
  • Dystonia
  • Eating disorders
  • Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
  • Electrical Sensitivity
  • Epilepsy/Seizure Disorder
  • Essential Tremors
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Food allergies
  • Fragrance sensitivities
  • Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD, Acid Reflux, Heartburn)
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders
  • Graves’ Disease
  • Guillain Barre’ Syndrome
  • Hand amputation
  • Hearing impairment
  • Heart conditions
  • Hepatitis
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Intellectual Impairment
  • Latex allergy
  • Learning disability
  • Leg impairment
  • Little person
  • Low vision
  • Lupus
  • Lyme disease
  • Marfan syndrome
  • Mental health conditions
  • Migraines
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Obesity
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Paraplegia
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Personality Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Poliomyelitis (Polio)/Post Polio
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS)
  • Quadriplegia
  • Raynaud’s Disease
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD)
  • Renal/Kidney Disease
  • Respiratory Impairments
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  • Shingles
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Skin conditions
  • Sleep disorders
  • Speech-language impairment
  • Spina bifida
  • Stroke
  • Stuttering
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Tourette Syndrome
  • Vertigo
ADA definition of disability
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Goldendoodle Autism Service Dog “Piper” @bri.and.piper


Life is hard enough when you don’t have a disability. Perhaps that is why the ADA definition of a disability is now so broadly defined; so as not to exclude anyone or make their life even more difficult than it already is.

Employers need to be sensitive to the fact that many people live with disabilities. Employees may need to be accommodated in certain ways so that they can still work, contribute to society, have a meaningful life, and things like that.

If you’re an employer trying to determine whether someone has a disability, you can always err on the side of caution. Making reasonable accommodations is not usually complicated or expensive. And it is likely much better to be accommodating rather than risk being faced with a discrimination lawsuit. People with disabilities are not trying to be high maintenance, but merely trying to live their life, just like other people do.

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Sam is an experienced writer, advocate for people with disabilities and mental health, dog lover, artist, philosopher, and generally complicated human being.

What Disabilities Qualify For a Service Dog?

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