Mental health conditions are a growing concern for a number of veterans. According to the Rand Center for Military Health Policy Research, about 20% of veterans that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from a mental health issue, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Leon Laferriere is one such veteran. His PTSD and anxiety qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as they are mental impairments that substantially limit major life activities, including his ability to sleep. Laferriere’s psychiatrist prescribed him a support animal that is trained to help him control his anxiety and wake him up from PTSD induced nightmares. In 2015, Laferriere applied to work as a freight driver for CRST International, one of the country’s largest transportation companies. Aware of their “no pet” policy, he hoped the company would be willing to accommodate the use of his service dog. The company denied Laferriere’s request, and earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit, alleging Laferriere was discriminated against because of his disability and unfairly denied a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the ADA.
Laferriere’s discrimination claims are not unique. According to a Bloomberg BNA analysis of EEOC statistics, claims alleging bias against people with mental health conditions grew to their highest level in 2016, making up 23.3% of all disability related charges filed by the agency, a 40% increase since 2006. One important way that employers can contribute to the fight against mental health bias in the workplace is by destigmatizing mental illness. Welcoming service animals for employees suffering from a mental illness can be a powerful way for employers to do so.
ADA: Service Animals vs. Therapy Animals
The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Employees that meet this requirement may, under Title I, request an accommodation—such as the use of a service animal at work—from their employer. Although employers are not automatically required to allow service animals in the workplace, they must consider the reasonable accommodation request and must allow the use of a service animal unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.