Considering Service and Assistance Animal Policies

Within the wide range of disability law that applies to higher education institutions, the legislation surrounding service and assistance animals has been of particular note in the last few years for housing and residence life professionals. While the accommodation of service animals in university residence halls has become a familiar situation for student affairs staff under ADA guidelines, the requirements surrounding the accommodation of assistance animals has been less detailed. For example, the 2008 Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act did not delve deeply into assistance animals. In contrast, the recent 2013 United States v. University of Nebraska at Kearney case brought to light the implications of the Fair Housing Act’s definition of an assistance animal on housing provided at an educational institution.

The following federal regulations apply to the use of service or assistance animals on a college/university campus: Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fair Housing Act (part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The ADA defines a service animal as any dog individually trained to perform tasks to benefit an individual with a disability, while HUD defines an assistance animal more broadly as an animal that either performs tasks to assist an individual with a disability or provides emotional support that alleviates symptoms of a disability. Thus, the HUD definition of an assistance animal covers dogs as well as other animals and does not require specific training for the animal.

Many higher education institutions have taken these definitions and regulations under consideration in updating policies surrounding service and assistance animals. Overall, recommendations for consideration include:

  • Construct Clear Policies – provide definitions of service and assistance animals, outline the request/appeal process, and provide a list of responsibilities for students regarding the care and safety of the animal as well as the community
  • Train Staff and Reduce Stigma – ensure that residence hall and disability services staff are well trained in the benefits of service and assistance animals as well as campus policies surrounding them
  • Reasonable Accommodation Request Process – always consider requests on a case-by-case basis and limit inquiry to a simple process and request for clinical documentation that is in line with ADA guidelines (as per existing accommodation request processes – i.e., do not require more information simply because assistance animals are a less familiar accommodation option)

By considering these recommendations and adjusting policies to better match the regulations governing service and assistance animals, university staff can ensure they are being mindful of the legal obligations while also supporting the needs of students with disabilities and the overall campus community.

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