Assistant director of OALA explains difference between emotional support, service animals

OALA accommodates on-campus students who need emotional support animals. Photo illustration by Grace Everett

By Sophia Tejeda | Staff Writer

Furry faces and wagging tails often fill Baylor’s campus, but most students do not truly understand the difference between pets, service animals and emotional support animals (ESA). While off-campus students may decide to share their space with a furry friend, the Office of Access and Learning Accommodations (OALA) works with students who live in residence halls to provide appropriate accommodations.

Anna Shaw, assistant director of OALA, said she has worked in the office for 12 years. Shaw said emotional support animals provide comfort for individuals with psychological disabilities, and service animals are trained dogs or sometimes miniature horses covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA said businesses that are open to the public must allow service animals to go most places where the public can, even if they have a “no pets” policy.

“ESAs do not have the same public access rights,” Shaw said. “Service animals are working animals performing a task for a person with a disability. Representing an ESA as a service animal is a misdemeanor in Texas punishable by a fine.”

Shaw said OALA approval consists of overviewing documentation of vet information, rabies vaccination dates, spay/neuter dates and proof of liability insurance for animal damage to the residence hall. From there, OALA makes a recommendation to Campus Living & Learning, which then makes arrangements within the residence halls, such as confirmation with roommates and suitemates and verification of a lack of allergies. Shaw said a student may not bring a service animal or ESA to the residence hall until all paperwork is processed and approved.

“In order for students to request to bring their emotional support animal to the residence hall, they must provide supporting medical documentation of a psychological disability and quite a bit of information of a disability-related need for an ESA — for example, to provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability,” Shaw said. “[The documentation] must be current from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health care provider who is providing service to the student or otherwise familiar with the student. The documentation must indicate how long the student has had the need and the use for an ESA. If the student has not previously had an emotional support animal, the documentation needs to provide the reason for that new recommendation.”

Other documentation from online providers or animal trainers will not be accepted, especially as these organizations have access to an online template containing the same information, solely changing the student and the animal’s names, Shaw said.

Shaw also said approval from OALA for an ESA allows the animal to live in the residence hall on campus, but it is not allowed in other areas of campus.

“They are not allowed in the classroom, library or other academic facilities on campus,” Shaw said.

Shaw said that student applications might not be approved if there is a lack of appropriate documentation and that bringing a non-approved animal to live in a residence hall breaks the code of conduct.

Columbia Heights, Minn., junior Sam Alexon said she attempted to bring an approved ESA with her to her residence hall this past semester. However, OALA did not accept her application. As a member of the LEAD LLC, current fellowship director and future student executive director, Alexon required OALA accommodations to bring her ESA back to the residence hall.

“I struggle with mental health issues, [but] I do a lot better [surrounded] by my pets at home or playing with friends’ pets, so I thought having one of my own would be beneficial,” Alexon said.

Alexon said she put a lot of thought into the maintenance of an emotional support animal, considering sizing and space as well as the overall responsibility of caring for an animal.

“I went to my primary care physician; your doctor has to have certain certification, which PAs have, and my doctor is a PA, so I asked her to write me a letter based on what I found about OALA’s guidelines,” Alexon said. “When I submitted it, they said it was not significant documentation of why I needed an ESA. They emailed me their guidelines and ESA application, which were difficult to find online. It was a bit of a frustrating process not to have access. I understand they don’t want everyone applying, but for someone who would actually benefit, having to jump through all of those hoops was not an easy process.”

Despite this challenge, Alexon said she commends OALA’s timely response, especially over Christmas break, and is considering applying again for an ESA next year.