“We are diverse in so many ways. We’ve become so accepting,” said Jane Larson of MCTC.
Yet despite progress, difficulties remain for some Minnesota college and university students who use service animals. Office of Students with Disabilities staff from Metropolitan State University and Disability Resource Center at Minneapolis Community Technical College (MCTC) outlined the challenges.
Eve Nichols is Director of the Office of Students with Disabilities at Metropolitan State. Jane Larson is Director of the Disability Resource Center at MCTC.
Neither of the schools has a policy for handlers of service animals in the classroom. Both schools, refer to the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) for protection of the rights of service animals and handlers for equal access to classrooms. The needs of people with disabilities supersede the rights of people in most situations.
MCTC has many students with disabilities in its enrollment, including about half a dozen who are handlers of service animals. There are few if any student handlers with service animals at Metro State.
No handler of a service animal has been denied access to a classroom by either school. The school officials said they consider service animals to be animals that provide a specific task or tasks, such as dog guides for people with visual impairments, dogs that alert their owners who are hearing-impaired or dogs that assist a handler who uses a wheelchair.
Other service dogs allowed in classrooms are dogs that alert the handler of a pending seizure as well as veterans who live with post-traumatic stress disorder. Neither school allows therapy and comfort dogs.
Nichols and Larson cited several questions Metro State and MCTC staff may ask if questions arose about whether the dog is or is not a trained service animal. These include: Does the dog perform a service? What service does the dog perform? Does that service pertain to somebody who has a disability?
For example, if a student had asthma or a dog allergy, the handler and the student with the breathing disorder would sit at a safe distance apart in the classroom. “(There is) Nothing to dictate where somebody should sit,” said Nichols.
But there are safety concerns for dogs and students. “In a weight training room, the dog sits in a corner away from the weight machines,” said Larson.
Cultural and ethnic diversity can play a role in the lives of service animals and their handlers, especially when animals are around people who may not be comfortable with dogs. MCTC is an especially diverse campus.
Larson said there needs to be a lot of give and take for a handler with regard to people of other religions, cultures and backgrounds. A newly hired MCTC employee was afraid of service dogs, having grown up in a country where dogs were kept outside, used to guard property.
Metro State has never had an issue on campus between somebody, who due to religious or cultural background, expressed fear or negatively reacted to a service dog.
There needs to be respect given to both sides, both women said.
Larson cited one example in which students of a religious group had set up a club activity inside a classroom. A handler of a service dog accidentally walked into that classroom and club members were upset by the presence of the handler and the dog. In a situation that involved a student with a disability, Larson stated, “I would advocate for the student. We are usually able to work things out.
Many colleges and universities are offering more opportunities for students to travel. That can create issues for students with disabilities and their service animals. One MCTC student brought his dog guide along on a domestic flight. There was a problem with the bulkhead seat arrangement Larson made for him in advance. The flight attendants wanted him to sit in a seat that was part of a three-row seat but the dog guide couldn’t fit in such limited space.
“When we travel abroad, students experience problems with prejudice about how dog guides are accepted,” Nichols said, she would suggest that students do some advance research of what is the policy of the other countries. One difficulty is in countries with rabies quarantines, such as Ireland. Student handlers and their service dogs could be separated for weeks if not months at a time.