What Disabled People With Service Animals Should Know About The ADA Guidelines For Apartment Complexes

The ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities. Yet, a disabled person accompanied by service animal might not know how these rights apply when leasing an apartment, especially if the apartment has pet restrictions. Here are the basics of ADA protection, and how the ADA affects the rights of disabled people with service animals.

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, is a federal law that protects the rights of Americans with physical or mental disabilities. These rights include:

  • Protection against discrimination;
  • Equal accessibility to public services, transportation, and facilities;
  • Equal employment opportunities; and
  • Telephone services adapted for the deaf.

Who is Protected Under the ADA?

The ADA does not specifically identify the mental and physical disabilities that will qualify a person as "disabled." It does, however, set forth three broad qualification categories:

  • Physical or mental impairments that significantly interfere with that person's daily activities, like talking, walking, hearing, working, or learning;
  • Documented illnesses or conditions, like recovery from cancer; and
  • Physical or mental conditions that would cause others to perceive that person as "disabled," like a severe facial burn. 

How Does the ADA Protect People With Assistance Animals?

An animal qualifies as a "service animal" under the ADA if it is trained to perform tasks specifically related to a person's disability. In 2011, the ADA restricted service animals to dogs and, in limited circumstances, miniature horses.

Under the ADA, people with disabilities cannot be denied service, refused accommodations, or charged extra because a service animal assists that person. 

How Does the ADA's Laws on Service Animals Affect Apartment Complexes?

Apartment communities must comply with the ADA, including those provisions addressing service animals. The ADA guidelines are different for apartment complexes built before 1990 (when the Act was enacted) and after 1990.

  • Apartment complexes built before 1990 must make reasonable efforts to remove barriers in public areas that make accessibility difficult for people with disabilities.
  • Apartment complexes built after 1990 must ensure that all public areas, like a parking lot, leasing center, and pool, are accessible to people with disabilities.

Regardless of when built, all apartment complexes must respect a disabled tenant's accommodation requests, and also allow that tenant to make modifications. For a tenant with a service dog, for example, this might mean that the tenant can add special handles so that the dog can open cabinets or turn a water faucet on and off.

The ADA also prohibits apartment complexes from charging tenants additional pet deposits or other animal-related expenses because that person has a service animal. Even if an apartment complex denies pets altogether, it cannot prohibit a tenant from having a legitimate service animal. Sometimes, a person's disability is not obvious, and the service animal's role is unclear.

In these situations, the apartment complex can ask a limited set of questions to verify that the animal is indeed a service animal, like what tasks the animal performs. The landlord can also request medical documentation that supports the tenant's need for a service animal. The apartment complex is not allowed, however, to ask the tenant what disability that person has.