Increase in ESA puts strain on disability staff

Increase in ESA puts strain on disability staff

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Photo Credit: Kaylie Stokes
Photo Credit: Kaylie Stokes

An influx in the number of students with Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and students seeking accommodations for disabilities has caused the head of the Disability Services Office to try to process around a quarter of the student population on her own. Many students are dissatisfied with the state of the campus as it relates to those with mental or physical disabilities.

The Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) offers a variety of services, but can not provide a student who is either chronically or temporarily disabled with a wheelchair. The CWC also cannot provide students with long term counseling, relying heavily on the “Episodic Care Model” to treat students for short periods of time. This can create difficult situations for students with mental illnesses who do not have insurance that can cover the price of off-campus treatment. The CWC also can only prescribe a limited range of psychiatric medications.

ESAs have recently become a more common sight on the New College campus as administration continues trying to increase accessibility to all students. There are several areas of campus where accessibility is poor or entirely impossible for some students, but the influx of ESA’s and instances of academic accommodations granted by the Student Disability Services (SDS) office may be a sign that administration is moving to make the campus truly accessible to all students.

The process of getting an ESA approved for on-campus living involves many different forms of documentation. Information on ESAs published on the New College website reads as follows, “Residents must demonstrate they have a disability and that the service animal is prescribed to the individual by a health care or mental health professional to play an integral part of the person’s treatment process.”

In an interview with the Catalyst, Leanna Johnson, a third year student with an ESA said her experience with getting approval for her dog to live on campus was easy. The first step towards getting an animal approved as an ESA, Leanna told the Catalyst, is a diagnosis.

“So I did everything on my end done first, I did a full psychological evaluation first to diagnose my disabilities, then I took care of my dog – got her vaccinated, got everything up to standard.”

When asked about the accommodations on campus for ESAs, Johnson began with the dog park behind the Dort building.

“It is poorly kept up, it is usually covered in trash and debris, and [Disability Services Coordinator] Meighen [Hopton] would like to do something about it but there’s not enough funding so it’s kind of back-priority. . . I saw that the bag posts were spread out and that was nice.”

Another thing that can be troubling to some ESA owners is the campus “one-bite” policy. The one bite policy requires that an ESA must be removed from the college after only one incidence of biting or “aggressive behavior.”

“It’s not just a one-bite policy, it’s a control policy.” Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs Mark Stier said. “Students are informed up front, it’s not fair to community members to have uncontrolled animals on campus.”

Stier further commented on the relationship between the Student Disability Services Office saying “100 percent of the time when Disability Services comes to us we demonstrate complete compliance.”

Students have cited additional concerns with accessibility around campus. The ramp leading to the overpass is one of the biggest offenders – far exceeding the ADA required ratio of 1 foot of ramp per inch of rise. This makes it virtually impossible for someone in a wheelchair to reach the overpass unaided.

Additionally many places on campus were recently fitted with automatic doors and buttons with which to open them, however many staff members forget to turn on the automatic functions of the doors. The library used to have a sliding front door, which was quite accessible, but recently the sliding door was replaced by a pair of heavy glass doors. Many of the doors in Ace are extremely heavy and do not have automatic functions – students in wheelchairs can be caught by the doors and sandwiched between the wall and the door.

“Today I got caught in a door,” Arlee Boyett, Student Accessibility Representative said. “I literally was riding my scooter, and this knee got cut on the door, Professor Cooper had to help me get out.” Boyett noted that only some doors in Ace have automatic functions.

Several of the buildings on campus have elevators, which are indispensable to people who are not able to easily climb stairs. There are some key buildings where classes are held, such as College Hall, which don’t have elevators and offer no solutions to students unable to reach the upper levels. Other elevators, such as the elevators in Dort have other problems.

“The elevators are notoriously unreliable,” Boyett said. “The Dort one has dropped me twice! It was out of commission most of last semester.”

Meighen Hopton, who handles the Disability Services Office on campus is over worked, Boyett says, telling the Catalyst Hopton is expected to process over 250 students applying for disability accommodations on her own. Hopton was contacted for an interview for this article but was unavailable by the time of publication.

“[We] aren’t getting much support,” Boyett said.  “It’s really hard to get stuff done around here.”

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