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How I've Experienced Discrimination After My Request for an Emotional Support Animal

I am not a statistician. I am not a law-maker. I am not the owner or manager of a housing property. I am not a psychologist or an expert on service animals and how they affect the treatment and coping process of folks with disabilities. My only knowledge of service or emotional support animals is what I have Googled or read on government documents, which explain my rights as a citizen of America.

Offhand, my knowledge of service and support animals seems feeble and insignificant. And that’s definitely how I felt when I first began the process of finding an emotional support animal. Over the last month though (throughout this horrific process), my confidence has risen because I have realized that I am, in fact, an expert. In my situation, I know better than my husband, my landlord, the adoption agency — even my psychiatrist. I know what I need and I know what I feel. I am the one who lives with my condition every single day. That’s why I felt the courage to write this article.

I live with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and a depressive disorder which is currently in remission. I’ve come a long way and I have learned a lot about my illness, but that makes me all the more qualified to stand up for how I feel and to speak out about this subtle issue within our community.

Most people have their own idea about what an emotional support animal is. Many of the people I know probably think like I used to: a service animal makes sense for those who are blind, experiencing seizures, or impaired by physical disability. Many would probably expect public places and housing properties to allow these animals because they are necessary to the lives of those with these disabilities. Additionally, I understand the belief that, as privately owned businesses, owners should be able to choose whether or not they allow service animals (and the karma of their customers’ outrage would cause the company’s self-destruction without any government involvement). But on the other hand, I also understand the belief that the government’s job is to protect its citizens and ensure their ability to “pursue happiness.” Lastly, I know there are plenty of people out there who abuse the laws protecting the right to service animals – taking advantage of websites that will certify any animal or give a “doctor’s note” to anyone who pays enough money. Because of this fact, I also understand why many landlords might be skeptical when presented with a reasonable accommodation request for a service animal.

During my junior year of high school, I was diagnosed with my mental disabilities. I have been receiving therapy and psychiatric help ever since and I have become a highly functional person. I have a job, healthy friendships and a great marriage. Nevertheless, even in the best times of my life, I have had constant underlying anxiety.

For the past few months, I have seen my anxiety rearing its ugly head like it hasn’t in years. This scares me. I have always been afraid of relapsing. Additionally, I am in a completely different life stage (and part of the country) than I was when I last learned to cope with intense, immobilizing anxiety. Recently, when I am home alone, I find my anxiety increases significantly and I have, in the past, come close to having panic attacks during these lonely times. When I spoke to my psychiatrist about my concern, she and I came to the conclusion that I could really benefit from an emotional support animal.

My husband and I found a young cat who was looking to be adopted. The foster parent thought this particular cat would be an excellent candidate for providing emotional support for me and, when I told my doctor about the cat’s demeanor and personality, she agreed this cat would be an excellent match. Early on in the process of looking for a fitting support animal, I contacted my apartment manager to find out how to go about properly changing our lease and placing my request for a reasonable accommodation.

emotional support animal tag in person's hand

This is where this story truly begins, because this is where I discovered problems that are subtle and seem to be commonly joked about or ignored.

Automatically, my apartment manager acted suspicious of my request. Now, I will give him the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he has had a tenant in the past abuse the laws which protect those with legitimate disabilities. Perhaps he had been conditioned by previous negative experiences to assume I was trying to work the system. People without disabilities who exploit these protective laws are a subtle contributor to this issue I want to address.

I provided the apartment management with all of the information they asked for: a doctor’s note, proof my animal had received his shots, and documentation of my animal’s certification as an emotional support animal. My husband read up on all of the rights I possess as a psychologically disabled citizen and typed up a formal request for a change in our lease, referencing the proper section of the Fair Housing Act. After this, we waited … and waited … and waited. As I am writing this, we are actually still waiting. It’s been about three weeks now since I first contacted the management to get the ball rolling. There have been plenty of folks within the long ladder of management who have been helpful and apologetic for the time this is taking, but they are all powerless because of the management’s system.

We decided to go ahead and adopt the cat my psychiatrist had approved. I didn’t want someone else to adopt him and I assumed it would only take a few days for the property management to process our request. Considering they couldn’t legally deny my request for reasonable accommodation in accordance with the Fair Housing Act, I assumed they would see the request, send us some documents to sign, and we could bring my support animal home. Of course, in the meantime, we are not allowed to have him in our apartment, so he has been staying with friends… for weeks. I get to visit him on days when they are home and aren’t busy. I have been able to pick him up for his vet appointment and bring him more food and cat litter, but then I have to go back home without him and the amount of stress and anxiety this entire process has caused is terrible.

Herein lies the second subtle problem within this system: on top of being met with suspicion, my request has not been taken seriously. For whatever reason, the management company has not made my request a priority. One of the ladies at the property management company has been helpful; she has explained some of the process and has kept me up to date. A request for a reasonable accommodation ultimately needs to be reviewed by the owner of the property; after the review, I will receive a document to sign, and my service animal can finally be brought to my apartment. This seems simple enough, but the chain of command is so unreasonably long that it has taken weeks for the documents to reach the owner of the property (the only one who actually has the power to help me). I made the decision to get an emotional support animal to minimize my anxiety, but the stress and anxiety my apartment management has put me (and my husband) through are exuberantly more than I would have experienced living without a support animal to help me cope.

According to the housing acts which protect my right to fair housing with a support animal, “discrimination” is charging extra rent on account of my service animal, denying my service animal access to my apartment or evicting me because I have the animal on the premises. Even avoiding processing my request or ignoring my request for reasonable accommodation is considered “discrimination.” If all of these things are prohibited, why then can my request be treated so irresponsibly? Why isn’t it considered discrimination for my request to be put on the backburner and given little to no priority?

I realize there are so many people with far, far worse conditions than my own, and that is part of the reason I feel so strongly about the failures within this system. My life is significantly hindered by my disability, but it is nothing in comparison with the impairments of many folks I have known and read about. I can’t imagine someone struggling with a more severe case of anxiety disorder than my own trying to manage the waiting, the nervousness, and the stress this management company has caused. Acts and movements to prevent discrimination and give equal opportunity to minorities with disabilities are great, but they are only a starting point. Now that we are beginning to see these acts being put into place, the true problem is the hearts of people whose understanding and compassion we (the mental health community) need and the relationship between us.

We need the support which comes from people without disabilities showing integrity and not taking away from the resources which have been set up for us. We need the consideration of those in places of power who can choose whether or not they honor our needs. We need the support of each other and of folks outside of the mental health community (like the friends who have been housing my emotional support cat all of the time we’ve been waiting). And we need our rights and our requests for accommodation to be about people and not laws. We need requests like these to be seen as a request for help and tenderness, rather than an intimidating demand that could result in court dates, if not handled properly. We need the efforts on behalf of the mental health community to be focused more on relationships and less on legality. We need to give and to receive compassion.

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