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Ski area was correct in keeping veteran's service dog off chairlift, Colorado civil rights panel rules

By JASON BLEVINS | The Denver Post | Published: January 15, 2018

DENVER (Tribune News Service) — In a case closely watched by the ski resort industry, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has dismissed a woman’s complaint against Winter Park ski area, which did not allow her service dog to ride a chairlift to the top of the mountain.

CarrieAnn Grayson, a Grand County volunteer ski patroller and former U.S. Army captain who served in Iraq, filed a formal disability complaint against the resort last fall, arguing the resort should allow her service dog, Guinness, to ride a chairlift with her. It was the first complaint of its kind in the history of the ski resort industry.

Aubrey Elenis, the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, ruled against Grayson, arguing there was no evidence of adverse treatment or discrimination when the ski area last year denied her service dog access to chairlifts for safety reasons.

“The evidence suggests that there is a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason service animals are not permitted on chairlifts: namely, allowing unrestrained animals to ride open chairlifts, which can be suspended over 30 feet from the ground, poses a threat to the service dog, skiers, staff, and rescuers who might have to rescue an animal from a chairlift,” reads Elenis’ 10-page ruling. The ruling also notes that Grayson rode chairlifts at least 43 times at Winter Park the previous winter without her dog.

“The evidence does not suggest that (Grayson) requires such an accommodation,” Elenis wrote.

Grayson, who said she just received the ruling on Sunday, said she needed time to process the decision, which she can appeal.

The Department of Justice allows some businesses to deny service animals — usually dogs — for “legitimate safety requirements” that “must be based on actual risks.”

Very few ski areas allow service dogs on open chairlifts, but many do permit service animals on gondolas or trams.

Winter Park, which is home to the nearly 50-year-old National Sports Center for the Disabled, which offers outdoor adventures to a wide array of disabled visitors, offered to drive Grayson and her service dog to the top of the ski area last summer.

The resort’s director of risk management, in a series of emails with Grayson, cited “a myriad of safety reasons” when denying chairlift access for Grayson’s service dog. Grayson, in her complaint, said she was confident she could ride with Guinness, who has completed more than 200 hours of service training to assist her with mobility issues. She argued her separation from other visitors by riding in a car to the top of the mountain violated ADA, which makes it a crime to deny public access to people with disabilities.

The resort industry closely watched the case. The ski industry is renowned for its programs for people with disabilities, with the National Sports Center for the Disabled offering one of the nation’s most acclaimed training programs. The Professional Ski Instructors of America count more than 1,800 certified adaptive ski and snowboard instructors in the U.S.

Owners of amusement parks also were observing the case, fearing that a ruling that allowed service animals on chairlifts could lead to increased access on amusement park rides, like roller coasters.

In 2015, a group of disabled visitors to Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park filed a federal lawsuit against the park and Lakeside police which denied service dog access to a train ride. According to court documents, the Lakeside Park Company held negotiations with the group in November last year and an undisclosed settlement was reached.

“The only way the park could get away with not allowing service dogs on the train is if they could show there was some kind of a ‘direct threat,’” said Julie Reiskin, the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, in a 2015 statement announcing the lawsuit. “There is nothing about this ride that is inherently dangerous.”

The Forest Service, which provides long-term permits to ski areas operating on public land, allows resorts to create their own safety policies regarding service animals on chairlifts. All but a handful of resorts have banned animals on open chairs.

“As ski resort operators, we have always been confident in our position that untrained animals create serious safety concerns for their owners, our lift operators, ski patrollers, and other guests,” said Dave Byrd, the director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association. “At the same time, we are constantly re-evaluating operations and procedures —especially with enhancing safety — and unique legal challenges like this give us a fresh opportunity to reconsider our practices to see what we can do better and how to be more accommodating.”

©2018 The Denver Post
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