A federal lawsuit against the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which denied the request of a student with a psychological disability to keep a therapy dog in her university-owned apartment off campus, could signal a shift in how institutions will be expected to handle such accommodations in the future.
At issue are Kearney's decision and the process by which it was reached. The lawsuit says the university asks too much of students with psychological or emotional disabilities.
Colleges have up to this point operated under the Americans with Disabilities Act when considering requests for service animals, which perform tasks for their owners and can be essential for blind or deaf students. But the new ADA amendments that became active in March don't recognize or define "therapy animals" that may be used for emotional support -- a potentially confounding omission for Kearney and other institutions.
Kearney, in the Department of Justice's opinion, clearly should have deferred to the rules of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the office that brought the initial charges under the Fair Housing Act. Those rules, which regulate basic apartment complexes irrespective of whether they house students, define therapy animals as any used as treatment for a diagnosed condition, and say facilities that ban pets can't prohibit reasonable requests for service or therapy animals.
Kearney, like most colleges, prohibits animals in university-owned housing, and has no written policy specifically addressing service animals living with disabled students. But under Kearney's ADA Policies for Service Animals, therapy animals don't even qualify -- only dogs trained and certified as service animals do.