Emotional/Medical Support Animals and The Americans With Disabilities Act
Effective since 1990, The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of “public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public”, stated by ADA.
Public places must allow “reasonable modifications” for these individuals, and therefore; service animals are accepted as such.
So the ADA recognizes service animals, but what about emotional support animals and therapy animals?
It is important to understand that there is a legal difference between the three, as well as the legal protections afforded to each distinction. A brief description of each classification of animal is as follows:
Service Animals or Psychiatric Service Dogs
A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.
The ADA and ESAs
While Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.
Even though some states have laws defining therapy animals, these animals are not limited to working with people with disabilities and therefore are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals. Therapy animals provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.
Housing Protection for Emotional Support Animals: The Fair Housing Act
According to the Fair Housing Act, individuals who are disabled cannot be denied housing based on their diagnosis or requests for reasonable accommodation. Under the FHA, a disability is defined as a “physical or mental impairment”, which substantially limits one or more major life activities. These activities can include caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, sleeping, and learning.
The FHA allows tenants with mental or emotional disabilities to request a reasonable accommodation for their Emotional Support Animals.
Individuals with verified ESAs (diagnosed by a LMHP and in possession of a legitimate ESA letter) cannot be denied housing, even if the housing complex or property owner has a “no pets” policy.
Another important note: landlords cannot ask for a pet deposit or any fee for an emotional support animal (unless the animal is destructive to the property or you, the owner, is neglecting them).
Flying Protection for ESAs: The Air Carrier Access Act
Under the Air Carrier Access Act, ACAA, anyone with a diagnosis of a mental disability and an emotional support animal letter from a mental health professional verifying the emotional benefit of the animal will be allowed to travel with the animal.
If the requirements are met, the airline is not legally allowed to ask questions about the disability and cannot restrict ESA owners and their animals from boarding the airplane.
And like the housing law, you are not required to pay a pet fee if you wish to travel with your emotional support animal.
**Please note, as of January 11, 2021, under new regulations passed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the allowance of Emotional Support Animals onboard flights may vary from airline to airline. Please contact your airline of choice for their most up-to-date policies on Emotional Support Animals.
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