In recent years, students at Sarah Lawrence may have begun to see a variety of animals on campus, such as cats and at least one hedgehog, with their fellow students. SLC students have begun to bring emotional support animals, also known as therapy animals, to live with them in school residences.
“It’s only been in the last couple of years that the idea of therapy animals on campus has come to light,” said Polly Waldman, Director of Disability Services. An official policy for therapy animals has only existed for the past year or so.
Therapy animals and service animals are not synonymous. Therapy animals are a much broader category and can be any species, so long as they are “an animal that provides therapeutic support or relieves a symptom of a documented disability,” said Waldman. Service animals, however, are limited to specially trained dogs (and in some cases miniature horses).
At SLC, therapy animals are restricted to an individual student’s room and no other buildings, and can only be taken outside with either a leash or a cage. The restriction are in place because of concerns about other students’ allergies and safety (since therapy animals do not have the same extensive training as service animals), although one of the requirements for students applying for therapy animals is that they be able to care for and control the animal and keep it on a leash outside of their own rooms.
Any school has the option to set its own rules regarding support animals that are not officially defined as service animals, beyond the legal requirement to allow them in a student’s own residence unit. Schools can allow support animals throughout campus as a general rule (including in buildings other than a student’s own dorm room), and they can also set rules on a case-by-case basis.
SLC’s restrictions about emotional support animals can sometimes cause difficulty for students. In one case, student Alex Biggs, who has two therapy cats and is considering getting a service dog, described an incident in the Tea Haus.
“I had Murphy (the cat who monitors my blood pressure) with me on a leash as protocol dictated and got fined,” Biggs explained. “They're really finagley about what specifically you can and can't do while not being specific about what is and isn't okay.” Students can experience days when bringing a support animal to class would make attending class more accessible for them, as Biggs describe having also experienced, but policy at Sarah Lawrence does not currently make that an option.
Therapy animals are often for “invisible disabilities,” or less-visible ones such as psychiatric disabilities, autism, and epilepsy, Waldman said. “A therapy animal is indispensable… they help in so many ways I didn’t even think of until I got them,” Biggs explained. They continued, “One of my cats helps alleviate my anxiety and can hear it when my blood pressure drops so he can actually sense when I'm about to have a seizure. This, of course, is important because if I don't know that they're coming then I can't do anything to keep me from passing out and hurting myself.”
Support animals can help people in a variety of situations. Biggs said, “I highly recommend an ESA for people with anxiety or generally have a hard time with priorities because it weirdly evens you out. Speaking from experience and speaking from watching someone with pretty severe depression and OCD absolutely blossom with a therapy animal.”
Fellow student Clare Szigethy, in discussing her plans to have a service dog with her on campus, described the benefits it will provide for her as “a freedom from fear.” Specifically, the dog would help with “going out in crowds” and “feeling safe if I have a panic attack in public, among other things.” Support animals can ease significant barriers to participation in the world, and specifically in life at SLC.
For a student to have a therapy animal, they must complete an Emotional Support Animal request form for Disability Services, and submit a form completed by a professional (such as a therapist or psychiatrist) specifically stating what services the animal would provide for the student. Waldman, for the Office of Disability Services, then decides whether to approve the request. If a student’s request is approved, Residence Life is informed and begins to figure out suitable accommodation for the student and their support animal on campus.
To have a service animal, as long as the student has a documented disability, the school must allow the service animal according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The process outside of interaction with the school administration is more complicated, however, for getting a service animal.
Szigethy said that for part of the process, “I had to get the clinician that worked with me for this spec condition to fill out a little paperwork, I submitted the paperwork as well as another person’s letter… about how it would help and the dog would be a good fit for me.”
Because service dog training can cost approximately $25,000, obtaining one also requires waiting for sufficient donations to be given to the organization providing the dog. The potential service dog owner can choose whether or not to participate in fundraising for the dog; doing so speeds up the process.
Under the Fair Housing Act, schools are required to allow both therapy and service animals in residence halls. Although graduate students have previously brought their service animals on campus at SLC, there has not yet been a service dog living with a student in on-campus housing.
While students with service animals can be asked two questions – “is this animal required because of a disability” and “what work or task has this animal been trained to perform” – if the reason is not self-evident, Waldman suggests that first people ask themselves a question: “why ask?” a student has a support animal, it can be assumed that they have a reason to have that animal with them. Additionally, because of the important role support animals play for their owners’ wellbeing, no one should assume they are entitled to time or interaction with another’s support animal.
Biggs explained, “Sometimes I'm a little uncomfortable with people just randomly messaging me like 'Can I hang out with your cat?' It's like, no? Who are you? It's one thing if I already offered but why would you just invite yourself to my house to come play with my cats? It's like, you wouldn't just show up at your disabled friend's place to take their meds.” According to Biggs, it can be disrespectful of a support animal’s owner to expect time with that animal as a source of entertainment, and distracting a support animal can compromise its ability to do its job.
For any who are interested in seeing more about support animals, one of Biggs’ cats, Murphy Tate Cheddar, has his own Facebook page. It was created by Biggs because, they explained, “A) I love having excuses to take pictures of my cats, B) I wanted to kind of create a motivational page that was dedicated to disabled people and, C) I wanted to sort of raise awareness about therapy animals in my own way [because if] people know other people who have them then there's less of a stigma, you know?”
Growing numbers of support animals on campus have the potential to make SLC a more welcoming and accessible place for those who need them.
J.M. Stewart '18