The rules have to change with the times

By Zoë Eitel, Editor-In-Chief

The world changes. Even though it doesn’t change as quickly or as often as many of us would like, there are few things that are the same as they were a few decades or even a couple years ago.

And as the world changes around us, Columbia must change, too.

The idea of an emotional support or assistance animal would have boggled the minds of most of our great-grandparents, but it’s a fairly common concept today. It’s common enough that, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a notice clarifying its Fair Housing Act, stating that housing providers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to tenants who need assistance animals, including those that provide emotional support.

And while reasonable accommodation may mean something different to one person than another, colleges have even more of a responsibility to make their students feel as comfortable and safe as possible. This absolutely includes doing everything in the college’s power to help students’ mental health.

As reported on the Front Page, Columbia denied accommodation to a student who was requesting a second assistance animal to stay in her fully paid-for student housing at The Arc. This student had already been approved for her therapist-recommended assistance cat, and though she had documentation from her therapist for an assistance dog, the college decided it would not grant this second request on the grounds that the animals would perform the same function—something both the therapist and the student refuted.

Who are these Columbia representatives to think they know more about what is best for a student’s mental health than both the student and her therapist?

The 2013 notice states that a housing provider can’t deny a tenant’s reasonable accommodation request because the provider is uncertain or doubts the tenant’s need for the assistance animal. The provider may request documentation from a doctor, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional if the need for the accommodation is in question. It goes on to state, “Such documentation is sufficient if it establishes that an individual has a disability and that the animal in question will provide some type of disability-related assistance or emotional support.”

That is exactly what this student provided. And Columbia cannot claim it denied the request due to what behaviors the dog might exhibit because the notice bars that as well.

So really, Columbia is attempting to play therapist and lawyer and not doing a great job because I found this information after a quick Google search and perusal of HUD’s records.

Beyond just denying this student’s request, Columbia is responsible for the stress of the process that has caused the student’s mental health to suffer and her grades to fall. She has also had to move out of the aforementioned fully paid-for student housing into an apartment, so she could get her therapist-recommended assistance dog and still keep her cat—a cat that Columbia representatives said she could get rid of if she wanted to switch it out for a dog.

This is one of those times that makes students realize that despite Columbia’s attempts to be accepting and progressive, it doesn’t do the best job. From having procedures requiring faculty to learn and use students’ preferred pronouns but the same faculty not making the effort to use them correctly, to having a disability office to make learning easier for students with disabilities—mental and physical—but office representatives not working to accommodate students in the way they need, Columbia needs to reevaluate how it’s adapting.

Younger generations are usually the ones pushing and pioneering these societal changes, and as a college, Columbia needs to be a safe, understanding and accepting place for students, even if the college doesn’t understand them.