Editor’s note: This article discusses ableism.
Hazel the hamster lives in Johnson House.
Her furry presence is loved by many. She leads a life of comfort and ease and she creates a vitally important atmosphere of happiness and stability for her owner, College first-year Eliana Zuckerman.
Hazel is an emotional support animal, allowed on campus by a Housing Accommodation obtained and approved by a committee who reviewed Zuckerman’s particular request only after receiving confirmation from the Office of Disabilities Services of Zuckerman’s registered documented disability, which was itself verified by a letter and signature from a licensed therapist.
Hazel’s arrival required quite a lot of paperwork.
The long and often stressful process of getting permission from the College for an emotional support animal, and the overall inaccessibility of the process, is something many students on campus have criticized. As Zuckerman notes, the process itself can be anxiety-inducing, while emotional support animals are often requested because of their necessity in alleviating the effects of illnesses such as anxiety and depression, among others.
There are very real logistical concerns that must be addressed for students to have animals living with them in the dorms — things like other students’ allergies or phobias, the potential concerns of roommates, etc. — but something that should not be an issue are the institutional hurdles that disabled students must contend with to receive the accommodations that allow them to live and function healthily and happily while at Oberlin.
Based on the experiences of various students who have gone through or begun the process of getting permission for an emotional support animal, contending with the requirements of the Office of Disabilities Services is both needlessly complicated, and at times, frustrating.
The committee that meets to review requests for the necessary accommodation meets only once a month; if you miss it, or can’t get documentation from the correct medical professionals in time — a barrier for those whose doctors may be states away or without an already-documented disability — you’re forced to wait until the next month. College sophomore and Psychology major Erin Michel, who is just starting the request process, noted that if a person is having a medical crisis and can’t get an accommodation in time, they may have to take a medical leave of absence.
Confronting ableist stereotypes within the Office of Disability Services itself is also an issue some have encountered. When Michel spoke to the Office for the necessary intake meeting, the first thing that was looked at were her grades and transcript, and her high GPA was noted.
“I thought, ‘How is this relevant?’” Michel said. “I worked hard for my GPA, but if I didn’t have high grades, would it be more of an affirmation that I needed the accommodation?”
Contrary to widespread belief, being successful while dealing with mental health issues is possible if the necessary supports and resources are available. Another student who works as an RA faced similar skepticism from the Office.
The Office of Disability Services asked her, “You’re an RA with anxiety? How does that work?” The student, who requested anonymity, explained, “I was really offended — people with mental health issues can still be functional and good at stuff.”
The assumptions and stereotypes surrounding mental illnesses and their perceived invalidity as illnesses are clearly exhibited in the larger national discussion over whether college students should even be allowed to have emotional support animals — based, as usual, on the logic that it’s another form of coddling students.
Last October The New York Times ran an article on “comfort animals” on college campuses, and the author wrote a follow-up piece in response to the intensely harsh deluge of critical responses to the first article. Some gems included: “God help these kids when they enter the real world” and “Grow a spine and face life without pharmaceutical or furry crutches,” written by a physician and other lovely iterations of the coddled millennials’ emotional and mental weaknesses. Students at Oberlin cited the benefits of emotional support animals as sources of unconditional love in their living spaces; as living beings who, separate from everything else in their lives, were sources of comfort rather than anxiety; as stable companions and calming presences.
To many, these benefits may seem superficial or coddling because apparently we live in a society that gets offended if people ask to be relieved of suffering through any means other than personal grit, stamina or individual inner strength. The invalidation of mental illness as real illness, and methods of treating it or relieving its worst effects, is an issue of ableism. Ableist discourse manifests clearly in a logic that says the simple request to live with an animal to better one’s health is, somehow, an absurd request.
Oberlin has the chance to do better. The College on an institutional level says it cares about the wellbeing of its students; it should back that up with policy. The process of requesting and receiving an accommodation for an emotional support animal should be streamlined and shortened.
Even though Oberlin is often called a bubble and separate from reality, in the real world people have pets. They live side by side with animals because it improves the quality of their lives, and no one criticizes these interspecies relationships. Disabled students deserve to have access to the services that contribute to their health. The College should ensure that many more hamsters like Hazel have a place on this campus.