The following was written by our colleague Jennifer Murchison for professors at her University.
“The Class Menagerie”
Jennifer Murchison, Assistant Director
Disability Resources for Students, University of Memphis
The question of animals in public spaces has long been a subject of discussion and debate among business owners and disability advocates. The conversation has grown, and continues to grow, in the field of disability services regarding animals in the classroom. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008, the blurred lines of what is and is not a Service Animal became sharper, providing clarity for professionals and more questions for the general public. The Department of Justice has identified distinctions between Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, and Comfort/Therapy Animals. These differences can be confusing, but knowing they exist is important, since one does not want to offend a person with access needs.
Service Animals, as identified by the Department of Justice, may only be a dog or, in select circumstances, a miniature horse. Automatically, any other species of animal does not qualify as a Service Animal. Service Animals may go wherever their Person goes including the classroom and restaurants, except where such poses a significant risk to health or safety, like a surgical/lab environment, a welder’s studio, kitchen, etc. If there is a question about whether the dog is a Service Animal, two questions may be asked: 1) Is this animal necessary for you because of disability? (you cannot ask the person about their disabilities) 2) What disability-related service or task does the Animal perform? While Service Animals must be trained, no certification, vest. badge, or card is required as proof. An example of a service or task can include such things as providing independent mobility for a person who is blind, picking up dropped objects or pulling a wheelchair, alerting someone to changes in blood sugar level for an individual with diabetes, or getting help for someone who is having a seizure.
Emotional Support Animals can be any species of animal, as outlined by the Fair Housing Act. ESAs are not allowed in public spaces like Service Animals. This means ESAs are not allowed in the classroom. ESAs require no certification, vest. badge, or card is required as proof. Their Person, however, does need approval for the Animal to be in residence halls. DRS works closely with Residence Life and Dining Services to review and approve these requests. An example of an Emotional Support Animal would be an animal that, by its presence, creates a calming environment for their Person.
Comfort/Therapy Animals are used in clinical settings and can be seen in public spaces under the charge of their Person, usually a licensed, clinical therapist. These Animals are often identified as being “touch-friendly”. An example of this would be the presence of the Animal creates a less-anxious environment for others, not their Person. This can include people in counseling sessions or waiting at the airport. Some faculty may bring Comfort/Therapy Animals into classrooms to show the therapeutic benefit these Animals have in counseling sessions, such as with patients with Alzheimer’s.
Regardless of their distinctions, these Animals should always be well-behaved, and their Person is ultimately responsible for any damage done or the behaviors exhibited by the Animal. This includes cleaning up after the Animal and keeping control of the Animal at all times. If the Person is not properly caring for the Animal, or if the Animal becomes a threat to the health or safety of others, the Animal can be removed and not allowed back.
Each of these Animals provide legitimate care for their Person. Each bring value to their Person, but knowing there is a difference is vitally important.
There are always caveats, and unfortunately there are those who take advantage of others. The public should beware of illegitimate businesses and unethical professionals who claim that, for some amount of money, they can provide documentation to take an animal anywhere. Some people pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for such animals, vests, or letters that wind up being worthless. There are others who may call their pet a “service animal” so they can take them places. This merely creates additional barriers in society for people with disabilities. Again, knowing the differences assists people with disabilities to identify their access support, and helps the public create better access support in return.