Earlier this week, United Airlines denied boarding to a woman with a peacock that she claimed was an emotional support animal. The sensational story went viral and in response United announced increased requirements for bringing a service animal or emotional support animal aboard its flights. This is similar to the change in policy that Delta recently announced.
Now, in order to bring a service or emotional support animal on a plane, the airlines are requiring increased documentation. People traveling with service or emotional support animals must provide proof of the need for the animal and if traveling on Delta, proof of training and vaccination. The documents must be submitted at least 48 hours in advance. This increases the burden on people who are actually disabled to make sure they have the necessary paperwork and submit it in a timely manner, or else they will not be able to fly.
From sorting out logistics to strategizing to ensure our mobility devices are not damaged when flying, travel is already a hassle for many disabled people. The added tasks that need to be completed to fly with service or emotional support animals will make traveling even more difficult.
It’s especially unfair that the increased restrictions will disproportionately affect disabled people, since nondisabled people are the ones causing this problem. People falsely claiming that their pets are service or emotional support animals have led to an increase in incidents of animal aggression and a growing skepticism among the public of the legitimacy of service and support animals in the first place.
To understand the problem, you must first understand that service animals and emotional support animals are different things. Service animals (usually dogs, though mini-horses are also covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]) are trained to perform specific services or tasks for a disabled person (including people with psychiatric disabilities). Emotional support animals are not specifically trained and are used to provide emotional comfort. There is no central governing body or accreditation agency that certifies animals as service animals or emotional support animals. People can easily buy fake vests or other markers identifying their pet as a service dog online without having to furnish any proof of special training.
Another part of the problem is that people conflate service animals and emotional support animals. Even legitimate emotional support animals do not necessarily need to be trained and can include peacocks. However, when airlines tighten their policies, the stricter standards are applied to both service animals and emotional support animals. The ADA does not apply to emotional support animals and only covers service animals. However, airlines are not governed by the ADA and instead have another somewhat similar set of regulations they need to abide by called the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
The ACAA gives airlines a wide berth to invoke rules when it comes to both emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals. Instead of making a distinction based on whether the animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal like under the ADA, the ACAA makes a distinction between whether the animal is primarily for psychological or physical needs. Airlines have never been required to allow non-traditional emotional support animals, like peacocks or snakes. Under the ACAA, airlines can also require advance documentation including doctors’ notes for emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals.
If a restaurant were to invoke these kinds of rules it would violate the ADA, but the new restrictions that the airlines have added appear to comply with the ACAA, though that doesn’t mean they are not still harmful to disabled people–especially people with psychiatric disabilities who lose the most protections as compared to the ADA.
It should not fall onto the shoulders of disabled people to fix a travel problem that nondisabled people have created. People who falsely claim that their pet is a service or emotional support animal are causing real issues for those of us with disabilities by making situations with already limited accessibility like air travel even more difficult for the disability community to access.