(Why I Won’t) Stop Trying to Make “Assistance Animal” Happen

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Anyone who has heard my lectures on animal accommodation laws knows that I have a strong aversion to the “emotional support animal” (ESA) label, and that I’m on a mission to remove it from the lexicon by replacing it with the more accurate term “assistance animal.”

It may seem like a silly nitpick, but I believe it makes a significant difference in the way we view the validity of disability and provide support for it in society.

First, the term ESA is inaccurate. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines assistance animals as “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.” Nothing in that definition restricts the types of disabilities it may be applied to.

ESAs are only one type of assistance animal. The positive health benefits of animals are far broader than a coping mechanism for mental health challenges. Just as seeing eye dogs are indispensable for individuals who are blind, so too can fish help teenagers better manage their diabetes (yes, really).

Some other ways animals help people navigate disabilities:

  • A dog who can instinctively detect an impending seizure and alerts his person before it happens.
  • A rabbit who helps a child with autism increase her social functioning.
  • A bird that alerts his person who is deaf or hard of hearing when someone knocks on the door.
  • A cat who helps her person with cancer move about, keep her schedule, and function on an ordinary day.

When we use the term “emotional support animal,” we dismiss these other crucial and powerful ways in which animals enhance the lives of individuals who are living with a multitude of disabilities.

Second, I don’t like to use the phrase “emotional support animal” because, frankly, it has become a punchline. People will use it to refer to someone in a disparaging manner, implying that the person is weak. “Oh, so you need an emotional assistance animal? Is the big, bad world too tough for you to handle without the security of your fuzzy wuzzy? Are you gonna curl up in a corner and hide until life isn’t so scary?”

Ok, that may be a bit over the top, but the mocking is real. We don’t have “emotional support doctors,” or use terms like “emotional support medication” so why use it in the reasonable accommodation context except to set it apart from other types of disabilities? The term ESA has baggage and only furthers the stigma against mental health.

Finally, by using the ESA label the individual is revealing more personal and sensitive information about her disability than required under the law. Unbeknownst to many, a housing provider is not entitled to detailed or extensive information concerning an individual’s disability, including the specific diagnosis. By using the narrow term ESA, the requester is already putting his cards on the table and often further divulges even more explicit medical information under the erroneous assumption that it will increase the likelihood that the housing provider will approve the request. Using the term “assistance animal” preserves one more layer of privacy.

Living with a disability is hard enough. Let’s stop perpetuating the idea that some disabilities are more deserving of help than others. It’s time we start calling these life-altering creatures by their actual name: heroes. But if that doesn’t work (I don’t know a housing provider who will accommodate a “hero animal”), let’s just stick with the label that’s accurate, inclusive, and private: assistance animal.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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