‘Emotional support animals – the Uk’s outdated discriminatory legislation’
The UK is plagued with inequalities, one important area overlooked by our current legislation is that of Emotional Support Animals (ESA). Before we get into this, let’s answer the question, what’s the different between a support animal and a service animal?
Support animals Vs. service animals
In the UK there is a legislative disparity between ‘support’ and ‘service’ animals, but why?
The most well-known service animal is likely, the ‘guide dog’. These animals provide invaluable support for people with visual impairments in the form of a 24/7, non-judgemental, four-legged companion that allows them to reclaim their independence.
Because of the training guide dogs undergo for their role they are viewed under the category of ‘service animals’, and are permitted to enter shops, restaurants, rented accommodation etc. Yet animals, including guide dogs, also offer tangible psychological benefits.
The Psychological benefits guide dogs can elicit can be explained in terms of the confidence and freedom that they provide to their owners. Yet, there is also an inherent ability to for animals to soothe and comfort individuals in distress, making them the ideal companions for those struggling with mental or emotional difficulties.
These animals come under many names but are generally known as Emotional Support Animals (ESA). Countless research investigations have shown the positive effect of ESAs in depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Yet, if you were to request permission to take an emotional support animal into your workplace or even your own rented accommodation you would almost certainly be refused entry.
Requesting an ESA at my university accommodation started off well with my landlord claiming they were ‘invested in the well-being of all tenants’ and recognised the tangible support ESAs offer. Yet within the same email my request was denied because legally they had no obligation to permit an ESA. Naturally, I questioned this decision. If they were so concerned with our well-being, why wait until they are legally obligated to allow an ESA when they could decide to allow them…
To this I was merely told ‘our position has not changed’.
This made me wonder, why is there such a distinction between animals that ultimately provide an improvement in people’s well-being? The answer, the UKs dodgy legislation…
In the USA ESAs are recognised on similar, if not the same, level as service animals. Yet in the UK companies, landlords, and workplaces are more than free to turn disabled people with ESAs away if they wish to. The reason for this is…confusing.
The distinction between service animal and support animal is generally made on the basis of training. A guide dog is trained to provide support for people with visual impairments whereas emotional support animals – largely – undergo very little training.
The issue with this distinction is that it discriminates on the basis of needs. A guide dog acts as the eyes of an individual, which requires a great deal of training. The need of a person with emotional or mental health related difficulties arguably come much more naturally to these animals. A dog elicits a positive feeling in most people just by their very nature, they are of course known as ‘man/woman’s best friend’.
Yet because they are not trained for their role they are seen more as pets than as service animals in the UK. I take issue with this as the contribution of an ESA is not measurable in terms of training received and not comparable to those offered by a guide dog. These are distinctly different animal roles for distinctly different problems. The UKs inaction on this matter highlights its laissez-faire attitude to supporting those with mental illness and hidden disabilities.
This oversight by UK legislation is a shining example of how hidden disabilities are not taken anywhere near as seriously as they should be. Change is long overdue yet when the issue is brought up it becomes a discussion of ‘whose disability is worse’.
Both experiences of people with physical and mental disabilities are deserving of respect and worthy of support. To compare them serves no purpose other than to juxtaposition one as lesser than the other. To denounce treatment options for one group because its method does not require training or tangible or physical benefits just as guide dogs do is absurd.
In the UK, if a person has a mental health condition for over a year it is classified as a disability. For anxiety you can be provided a Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). Yet, when it comes to support animals our legislation has absolutely no concern with the well-being missed out on by our out-of-date laws. Yet, it appears we are stuck in endless debate with the ill-informed, unwashed masses.
The ‘devil’s advocate’ people – what disability looks like
Many things we take for granted were once outlawed by outdated legislation. We look back and say ‘well that’s just how it was’. Yet when new changes are proposed they are almost always met with derision and criticism, regurgitating the line that if something is written into law then it must be morally and ethically correct.
With any proposed amendment of change to legislation there are always people happily playing devil’s advocate. The apparent need compare two different things on an axis that makes one appear absurd is tactic often used by traditionalists, ‘if we allow this, what will be next?’.
These people argue that ESAs are more like pets than service animals, and that the legal recognition for service animals should remain only for animals that support ‘truly’ disabled people. These are the same people that harass blue badge users for not ‘looking disabled enough’. These people feign concern for ‘truly’ disabled people to excuse their ill-informed policing of disabled people’s rights.
Despite only 8% of disabled people in the UK requiring a wheelchair, in the eyes of the devil’s advocate people, if you’re not in a wheelchair you’re not disabled. Through their outdated view of what disability looks like they see support options for non-wheelchair using disabled people not as levelling the playing field but as an unfair advantage. Such people have always been around, this does not mean we need to listen.
It’s time to listen to people who would benefit from this change in policy and work out a way for ESAs to be given the same rights as service animals and help defeat this mental health epidemic we face in the UK.
Have your say here: Make ESAs Legal UK.