For many years people living with disabilities have had the benefit of being able to use an emotional support animal service animal to aid them in their everyday life. Unfortunately, the use of service animals had not always been seen as a priority or a need for many individuals. Thankfully, the United States Government stepped in to provide specific accommodations and protections for those living with disabilities. Service animals today, are highly regarded as an extension of a disabled person, aiding and protecting those individuals from accidents. There are various kinds of service pets, seeing eye dogs for the blind, hearing assistance dogs for the deaf, even miniature horses that help individuals with balance and stability issues.
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Though service dogs help many different disabilities, the recent explosion in support animals has reopened age-old questions concerning the validity of a person’s need for such an animal. The confusion between service and support animals is one of the underlying reasons people have begun to question the needs of disabled individuals.
What Is the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and Service Animal?
The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) has defined service animals as animals “that are individually trained to perform tasks for patients with disabilities.” An example of such work would be pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or relaxing a person who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and many other duties. Service animals are working animals and not considered pets. The task the pet has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Unfortunately, animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not currently qualify as service animals under the ADA. Instead, these animals are classified as emotional support animals (ESA).
Emotional support animals are those that provide therapeutic benefit through support and companionship whether that is to ease symptoms from an emotional or mental disability, as a non-judgmental companion or even as a distraction from stresses associated with daily life.
How Are ESAs Treated or Protected Under the Current Federal Laws?
Though there are a variety of rules associated with protections of service animals, support animals sometimes fall into a gray area where the federal government is concerned. A few states have decided that to prevent those suffering from mental or emotional disabilities to be lost in the shuffle, they would step in to provide protections whereas other states have chosen not to add any additional protections at all.
Individuals suffering from disabilities are protected when it comes to two specific areas, housing, and air travel, while a third area, employment, has some gray areas when it comes to accommodating ESAs. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Pets that support, assist or provide service to people with disabilities are protected under HUD’s regulations. Assistance animals are not considered pets under these rules and therefore can not be treated as such. Regulations prevent landlords or property owners from denying tenancy or charging fees associated with either service or support animals. In short, the government has determined that these individuals have the right to live in an apartment, condo or home with an animal they have chosen to assist them in their disability.
Housing With An Emotional Support Animal
The Fair Housing Act does not require that support animals be individually trained or certified, however, individuals who are requesting protection for support animals must follow specific rules. They must submit proper documentation from a licensed mental health professional stating the nature of their disability and the medical necessity for an assistance animal. Though the most common type of assistance animals are cats and dogs, other species also qualify under these rules as long as they are a legally accepted animal; mice, ferrets, hedgehogs, and even pigs can be eligible as support animals as long as they provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptom or effects of a person’s disability. Importantly, these animals are not required to have specialized training as they are not classified as service animals.
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While it may seem that tenants have the most significant power when it comes to accommodations for support animals, it is important to note that property owners or landlords have some protections as well. It is perfectly legal and within their right to request for an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional. While it is not required that specific medical information is divulged, certain information is necessary to determine eligibility. Your clinician must submit the required information on their letterhead, mainly serving as a prescription. It will state the nature of the disability and that a reasonable accommodation for a support animal is necessary. Even though the renter cannot be charged a pet fee or pet deposit, they can be legally held responsible for any damages that are caused by the support animal.
Additionally, if the support animal poses a threat to the health or safety of others or would cause property damage, an ESA can be denied. These exceptions are limited and extremely hard to navigate without legal advice. Both the tenant and landlord should exercise caution when browsing delicate issues such as this.
Travel With An Emotional Support Animal
Patients who wish to travel with their emotional support animal have enjoyed strong support when it comes to traveling by air. However, due to recent abuses, more stringent policies have been enacted by many carriers. The Department of Transportation (DOT) through the Air Carrier Access Act allows ESA owners to travel with their animals in cabin and free of charge as long as the animal is well-behaved and fits within the guidelines of the specific airline. Unusual animals such as snakes, spiders, ferrets, rodents, and reptiles are prohibited under the DOT’s rules. The airlines have strengthened the requirements for traveling with ESAs. To ensure travelers ample opportunity to obtain any additional required information, it is advised that contact is made with the carrier well in advance of travel and that no less than 48 hours before your departure time contact is made once again.
For individuals traveling from either JFK or LaGuardia Airports, both are very accommodating to emotional support animals. As with many other airports, you will need to submit your ESA letter in advance and get in touch with the airline you are traveling with to find out if they require any additional information before allowing you to travel with your support animal.
For those planning overseas travel, some accommodations have been arranged with many host countries but to ensure you will not have any issues, travelers must contact the State Department for additional information and resources. Keep in mind that foreign airlines traveling to and from the United States are only required to accept dogs in the cabin.
The DOT rules for individuals traveling with ESAs on other forms of public transportation (bus, commuter rail, ferries, etc.) do not require providers to consider emotional support animals as anything more than pets under their pricing policies. They can choose to treat these animals as they would service dogs or ban them entirely.
One last thing to consider when traveling, transient lodging establishments such as hotels or inns are not required to treat ESAs any different than other pets. ESAs can be subject to pet fees as well as not allowing them in the businesses. We suggest that travelers seek pet-friendly locations during their travels to avoid any issues.
Employment With An Emotional Support Animal
Disabled individuals, seeking employment or currently employed and need the assistance of an emotional support animal fall under the grayer areas of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA provides protections for disabled individuals in the workplace by prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees or potential employees with disabilities in all facets of employment including hiring, pay, promotion or firing and protects the employee from retaliatory behavior if they assert their rights under the law.
While the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers, those who seek to bring their emotional support animals to work with them fall in the cracks sometimes. Most employers will follow the same process as they would a service animal whose hander does not have a visible disability and request the individual to provide proof from the licensed mental health professional and their request to see their ESA letter. Unfortunately, federal law only comes into effect if an employer has 15 or more employees, small businesses may not fall under this guideline.
Employers have the right to expect those support animals, like service animals be free from odors and not be a danger to anyone. While employers are expected to make reasonable accommodations, there are times when these accommodations may cause undue hardship on the employer. To ensure adherence to the law, any business owner who feels that they would suffer an undue hardship should seek legal advice before denying any accommodation.
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Getting An ESA Letter In New York State
While New York has made some strides to provide additional accommodations for individuals who use emotional support animals, improvements can be made. Neither the federal government nor New York provides protections for support animals in public areas as they do for service animals. To ensure that all individuals with disabilities have equal access improvements need to be made. Be sure to inform and educate yourself on laws and ESA letter duration if you are living with an ESA. Sometimes you are your own best advocate and can affect change by teaching others in a calm and understanding manner.