Service animals and assistance animals are not pets. Whether a dog or a miniature pony, they are crucial for someone with visual, hearing, motor or mental disabilities to perform daily activities and live independently. Assistance animals can alert people to an impending seizure or the presence of allergens; they can retrieve items such as medicine or the telephone. They can provide crucial emotional support.
As of Tuesday, the federal government has made it clear that service animals and assistance animals must be viewed differently than pets when it comes to housing. Landlords are required to provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities requiring the support of service animals and other assistance animals that “perform tasks, provide emotional support or otherwise alleviate the impact of a person’s disability.”
John Trasviña, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, notes that his department’s most-recieved discrimination complaints are “disability-related complaints, including those that involve assistance animals.” A glance at this list of cases related to assistance animals and housing laws confirms the extent to which individuals with disabilities are limited in their housing options or even denied housing on the (incorrect) grounds that their animals are pets.
The government notice (pdf) now spells out the responsibilities of housing providers under both the Fair Housing Act (which covers nearly all types of housing including privately owned housing and federally assisted housing) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (which applies for some public accommodations including shelters, assisted living facilities and housing at places of public education).
The ADA is quite specific in its definition of a “service animal”: They are described “narrowly as 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.” The government’s notice clarifies that landlords are to accommodate individuals with disabilities who use service animals and also other assistance animals. Besides dogs, miniature horses and cats can be emotional support animals.
Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords must provide “reasonable accommodations” to individuals with disabilities who need the assistance of an animal. Accordingly, pet restrictions cannot be used to limit or deny housing to those relying on assistance animals and housing providers cannot charge individuals with disabilities a pet deposit.
The government also makes it clear how much medical and other private information a person must provide to a housing provider. A landlord may request documentation about a person’s disability and/or their need for an assistance animal due to their disability when that disability is “not readily apparent or known to the provider” — when, for instance an individual needs an animal for emotional support. But the housing provider may not request “access to medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental impairments.”
“An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability,” the federal notice underscores. Landlords may not be too happy about the new clarification of the Fair Housing Act. It is truly good news for individuals who rely on service and assistance animals. The government’s notice shows the greater embracing and understanding of the often essential and life-saving role that animals can play in people’s health.
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