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    A Times Editorial

    Open doors to new service dogs

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 31, 2002

    Most of us have witnessed the remarkable work of seeing-eye dogs. These gentle animals guide their blind owners safely along sidewalks and through traffic, giving their masters a remarkable degree of independence. Now, a new breed of service dog is being enlisted to help another disabled community: people who suffer from seizures.

    Whether due to epilepsy or other types of brain disorder, seizures can be devastating, especially when the victim has no warning. Remarkably, certain dogs can be trained to detect the signs that a seizure is imminent up to a half hour before it strikes. These dogs alert their owners of the impending attack and act to keep them immobilized during it to prevent injury.

    The dogs provide an invaluable service to people such as Connie Standley of Eustis, who told the New York Times that her dogs are able to detect a coming seizure with 80 percent accuracy and can fetch a telephone or medication if she needs it. But Standley says the dogs aren't always accepted at restaurants and other places of public accommodation. Because she is not blind, she has trouble convincing restaurant owners that her dogs are truly service animals. Federal law already requires places of public accommodation to welcome service dogs, but it is vaguely written.

    A bill, HB 1819, awaiting Gov. Jeb Bush's signature would clarify the law by granting people who suffer from seizure disorders the right to bring a service dog into places of public accommodation. It also would impose criminal penalties and restitution requirements on anyone found guilty of injuring or killing a service dog. A spokesperson for the governor says he is predisposed to support the bill but hasn't made a final decision.

    This is one of those easy calls. The bill would impose little additional inconvenience on business owners, while offering those who suffer from epilepsy and other forms of seizures a better quality of life. It was so uncontroversial, the Legislature passed it unanimously. Supporters say the change will give those with seizure disorders the ability to present copies of the new law to skeptical business owners, thereby opening previously closed doors for a segment of Florida's disabled community.

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