Recently, a federal court entered an order against the University of Nebraska at Kearney, requiring it to allow a student to keep her doctor-prescribed therapy dog in her university-owned apartment.
The court’s ruling should be unremarkable in that the Fair Housing Act has prohibited discrimination for disability for 25 years. What is remarkable is that, in its zeal to win in litigation, the university argued that university housing, which is “home” for more than 2,200 individuals in Kearney alone (more than 10,000 university-wide), was not housing but was more like a “jail.” Not surprisingly, this position is not offered in university literature aimed at recruiting students.
As a proud alumni of the University of Nebraska system, I can say with certainty that I never felt incarcerated during my university experience. But as the executive director of the Equal Rights Center, an organization that has fought for equal housing opportunity for 30 years, I am saddened that Nebraska’s leading learning institution would argue against the rights of the more than 57 million Americans with disabilities.
Assistance animals allow tens of thousands of people with disabilities equal opportunity to enjoy aspects of everyday life that people without disabilities take for granted. In ignoring this reality, the university does itself, and its students, a disservice.
In rejecting the university’s argument, the judge seized on a key point: “While UNK contends that some first-year students are assigned to university housing, they still choose to enroll at UNK, meaning that they have a freedom of choice that is quite unlike going to jail.” With its new-found argument, the university may find that some will exercise that choice and go elsewhere.
Don L. Kahl, executive director, Equal Rights Center, Washington, D.C.