This month, Popeyes restaurants announced they would sell “Emotional Support Chicken” — chicken-shaped to-go boxes just in time for the holidays.
Despite the obvious attempt to humorize situations in which different species of animals serve as emotional support animals, the decision — and media coverage of it — has two large issues. First, it conflates emotional support animals and service animals, and second, it uses the idea of service and emotional support animals as a punchline.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), individuals with disabilities are guaranteed equal civil rights. As the City of Philadelphia’s Director of ADA Compliance, it is my job to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to participate in all aspects of the City as people without disabilities, and that often starts with educating the general public.
In response to the recent news coverage around Popeyes “emotional support chicken,” I wanted to use this opportunity to dispel any myths about service and emotional support animals and the necessary roles they play in the lives of some people with disabilities.
According to the ADA, a service animal is any dog (and sometimes a miniature horse) that has been trained to perform specific tasks or take specific actions to avoid or to mitigate a disability. Service dogs may accompany their handler into any area that the public is allowed, including airplanes, public buildings, and restaurants.
Emotional support animals are different. They are a type of assistance animal that can be of any species. Assistance animals must be prescribed by a qualified medical professional based on a disability-related need. These animals do not have to be trained to perform a specific task, and have a different legal standing than the service animals mentioned above. While emotional support animals are not service animals under the ADA, they may be permitted as an accommodation for people traveling on airlines as a result of the Air Carriers Act, and in housing under the Fair Housing Act.
Luckily, in public, laws are in place to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. In this case, however, people with disabilities became the punchline of a national restaurant chain’s joke. This type of inaccurate portrayal of emotional support animals is particularly harmful because it increases the potential for fraudulent use of service and assistance animals, and increases the negative pushback often received by people with legitimate service and assistance animals in public.
It is unfortunate that Popeyes is using an important resource for people with disabilities as a joke for their product, and even more unfortunate that they launched this campaign without thinking of people with disabilities — a community that, despite making up over 12 percent of the national population, receives little to no attention or resources. To put it plainly: Yes, maybe it is interesting or surprising to see animals in public, but no, it’s never funny to mock the assistance that someone may need to get by in their day-to-day life.
Saron McKee is the City of Philadelphia’s director of ADA compliance.