I am an elementary school teacher in Arlington, Virginia. Recently I was approached by the parents of a student I taught last year. The family just moved to an apartment building with a no pet policy, and they are submitting a reasonable accommodation request so that their son’s emotional support animal, a cat, can live with them. The parents asked if I would be willing to fill out a form to verify their son’s disability and disability-related need for an emotional support animal.
I am aware that their son has ADHD and I observed last year that his behavior and focus improved over time after he got Fluffy. However, the form requires me to certify that I currently have a “therapeutic relationship” with the child. As I am not a medical provider and I am no longer his teacher, I don’t think that I meet this requirement.
I want to support this family because I know the child’s disability is helped by the presence of the cat, but I feel uncomfortable filling out this form. What should I do?
A Confused Teacher
Dear Confused Teacher,
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities have the right to request reasonable accommodations in housing. A reasonable accommodation is a change, exemption, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service so that a person with a disability can have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home. In order to request a reasonable accommodation, the person with the disability (or someone on their behalf) may be asked to submit documentation that verifies that they have a disability and explains the relationship between their disability and the reasonable accommodation.
As you point out, the language in the verification form is confusing. For a bit of background on where that language probably comes from, Virginia passed a law regarding assistance animals in housing in 2017. An early version of the bill required a third party verifying someone’s disability to have an ongoing “therapeutic relationship” with that person. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of General Counsel (HUD) wrote a memo about the bill. HUD raised significant concerns about many of the provisions in the bill, including the new restrictions on who can provide verification for a person’s disability. The bill was amended before it was passed in order to address the overly burdensome requirements that would likely restrict the fair housing rights of people with disabilities. Specifically, the requirement that a third party verifier have an ongoing therapeutic relationship with the person needing a reasonable accommodation was removed from the law.
While the passage of the law has created confusion surrounding third party verification, anyone with knowledge of a person’s disability and disability-related need for a reasonable accommodation can verify that information. A few examples of people that may be able to verify someone’s disability include a healthcare provider, therapist, social worker, teacher, or someone from a peer support group. In addition, you do not need to currently have a relationship with the person with the disability in order to verify their disability. For example, a former therapist or caseworker could complete the required verification.
As you are aware of the child’s disability and disability-related need for their cat, you can submit the verification for the family. If you feel uncomfortable filling out the apartment building’s form due to the language you mentioned, you can draft and submit a verification letter instead. The ERC recently released a template for third-party verification that you may find useful when drafting the letter.
If you have any questions about what should be included as part of the verification, you can contact the ERC by calling 202-234-3062 or by filling out a short form online. If the housing provider refuses to accept the documentation you submit or otherwise unreasonably denies the family’s request, the ERC may be able to assist them with requesting a reconsideration of their reasonable accommodation request. Please note we are not able to offer legal advice. Nothing in this column should be construed as legal advice. For legal advice, you should contact an attorney.
The Equal Rights Center
 If a person’s disability is obvious, they do not need to submit documentation verifying their disability. The same is true for the relationship between their disability and the reasonable accommodation—they do not need to submit documentation if the relationship is obvious.
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