By ERIN MATUCZINSKI
Reliance on an emotional support animal (ESA) is a popular method of additional treatment for those who have mental health disorders. Because there are not yet many federal regulations on these animals, it is difficult to determine who truly needs them and how they might be helpful to those who do. In my opinion, this can lead to people abusing the system to have their pet wherever they please.
Here at UMW, this is not the case. The Office of Disability Resources takes this matter so carefully that it is not a simple feat for students to abuse the system on campus.
However, the issue is still present on the national scope due to the lenient federal regulations on emotional support animals.
There has been recent attempts to appeal to partisan concern. Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a guideline to clarify the regulations behind emotional support animals on flights. According to a USA Today article, passengers have gone as far as to bring squirrels and peacocks onto airlines. Aside from exotic animals, the article notes several instances of dog-passenger attacks. Upon hearing the outrageous stories, I began to question how can these animals are used for emotional support and how they differ from service animals.
College campuses are arguably the best known place for emotional support animals to be present. With an enormous change in lifestyle and stress weighing on students’ shoulders, it makes sense for those with emotional support animals to be able to bring their companion along. However, it is important for people to understand the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal and the necessity for both.
The biggest contrast is that service animals, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, have the right to be in public establishments, while emotional support animals do not. ESA’s are not intended for constant comfort and care, only in-home and in times of need. Service animals serve to support their owners who need assistance for day-to-day activities. Some remain with their owners at all times. College campuses, where students are living in the same place that they learn and work, can blur these lines and make differentiation difficult.
Jessica Machado, the director of the Office of Disability Resources (ODR), is heavily experienced on this difficult subject. Even though these animals are legally a housing accommodation, there is still an important process students must go through before getting such accommodations.
Students who wish to request a housing accommodation must provide documentation from a licensed medical provider, as well as attend a meeting with the Housing Committee in order to determine their disability status, necessary accommodations, safety concerns and other factors.
“We take this decision very seriously,” says Machado. “There are lots of people who review and make these decisions, and it’s a really hard one.”
Safety is the biggest concern for the ODR and Housing Committee. Even though there are no restrictions on what species or breed of animals that can be brought or used, it is still important to consider the rights of other students.
“When you do something for one person, another person is affected,” Machado says.
The aspect that sparks most confusion for students is the lack of legal regulations surrounding service and emotional support animals. According to federal law, emotional support animals are not required to have formal training. In addition, both emotional support and service animals are not required to wear an identifying vest or tag.
“Service animals go through rigorous training that sometimes takes up to two years to master,” said senior business administration major Fred Guerrero. “When completed, service animals still have to abide by many rules while ‘working,’ while ESAs usually do not. This overlap causes confusion with the general public on what is acceptable and what is not.”
During Machado’s interview, she made it clear that there is a wide misunderstanding between service animals, emotional support animals and the jobs that they both perform. While this may be true, the lack of federal regulations does not make the foggy subject any more clear. This has even made some students feel that the emotional support animal system can be abused.
“I think it would cause people to take advantage of bringing an animal to school with them,” said senior biochemistry major Emily Matuczinski. “But if there are no formal requirements to have an ESA, I’m not sure if they are doing anything wrong.”
While these concerns are understandable, and some that I have even harbored myself, UMW’s policies and actions are upheld in order to accommodate students with disabilities, not just students who wish to bring their furry friends to school. The ODR and the Housing Committee take legitimacy and safety very seriously in order to protect everybody on campus. Even if the general population may be still able to abuse the use of emotional support animals under federal regulations, UMW’s policies and actions prevent that from being the case with our students here on campus.