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Saturday, April 20, 2024

“It’s as though animal science tries to kick disabled people out” — Students with disabilities ‘fight’ for accommodations

Lab sections in classes pose challenges for students with service animals 

Wheeling down the sidewalks of UC Davis, Isa Rutten is accompanied by her service dog, who trots alongside her. Past the steps of Rock Hall’s main entrance, she goes to the far end of the building, rolling herself up the ramp. The door swings open when she presses the wheelchair button. She enters, wheeling down the slippery, internal hallways. When she finally reaches the lecture hall, she rolls up to the wheelchair desk in the front. Her service dog settles down, always right beside her. 

Despite setbacks from her multiple physical and psychiatric disabilities, Rutten, a second-year animal science and management major, is determined to open her own service animal organization. At UC Davis, Rutten receives helpful services, but she still struggles toward her goal when she cannot receive certain accommodations for required classes in her major.

Last fall, Rutten’s beloved service dog, Winston, a two-and-a-half-year-old Australian Labradoodle, could not attend the nearly three-hour lab portion of ANS 001, an introductory animal science class. Due to the lab’s physical demands, Rutten struggled without Winston. 

“People could see that my functioning level went way down,” Rutten said. “[Winston]’s here for a reason.”

As a multi-purpose service dog, Winston performs psychiatric tasks for Rutten, like mitigating her depression and anxiety. Additionally, he performs physical tasks and medical responses for Rutten, such as deep pressure therapy to lower Rutten’s heart rate.

“I can honestly say that if [I] did not get him, I would not be here,” Rutten said.

After being diagnosed with two co-infections, Babesia Duncani and Bartonella Henselae, and Lyme Disease in January 2019, Rutten took a medical leave of absence during Spring Quarter 2019. She needed time to manage those diseases and recover from frequent dizzy spells due to Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and random allergic reactions she gets from Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. 

“It was the hardest decision to go on [a medical leave of absence] because it’s not only leaving this environment, but there’s a certain extent where it’s admitting defeat,” Rutten said.

Rutten returned to classes in the fall for her second year at UC Davis, yet her situation with accommodations has not improved. Now that she uses a wheelchair, the animal science advisors are unsure how she will complete the lab portion of ANS 002, the other introductory animal science class. Since special safety equipment — like booties and gloves — is required to enter certain animal pens, Rutten said the department does not know how to sterilize her wheelchair. 

“It’s almost as though animal science tries to kick disabled people out, like they try to scare them away, because they don’t want to deal with it,” Rutten said. “It occurred to me that the whole area is not designed to be accessible in terms of classes or their building, Meyer Hall.”

The Animal Science Department could not comment on Rutten’s story since they legally cannot disclose personal information about students. Kelly Wade, animal science’s chief administrative officer, however, said in an email that the department strives to include everyone in its programs.

“The department is fully committed to making our programs accessible to individuals with physical limitations, consistent with campus policy and the campus commitment to equal educational opportunities,” Wade said. 

When the Animal Science Department challenged Rutten’s friend, Lysi Newman, a fourth-year wildlife, fish and conservation biology major, in regards to her service dog, Newman decided to switch out of the animal science major. Rutten, however, is “willing to fight it.” 

“I had a meeting with the [chair of the Animal Science Department] and I said, ‘I don’t know what you want me to do,’” Rutten said. “He said, like at least three times during that meeting, ‘maybe you should think about changing majors.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to prove to you that I can do this.’”

James Murray, the professor and chair of the Animal Science Department, said that to his knowledge, the department has “never asked a student to leave the major” and does not “think [the department] would.” Murray said that he works to guide students towards the best track or concentration of study within the department of animal science that fits their accommodations. 

“As a faculty advisor, our job is to advise students,” Murray said. “[Students] make the decisions. I would certainly be willing to have a conversation with a student about ‘Is this the best major for you? Is this the best path?’”

Reaching a disability-rich campus 

Across the U.S., students with disabilities face issues similar to Rutten’s. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities.

Nationally, 9 to 11% of higher education students disclose disabilities and request accommodations, according to Jennifer Billeci, the director of the Student Disability Center (SDC). At UC Davis, the SDC served 1,848 students or about 5.25% of the 35,186 enrolled students during the 2018–19 school year. Over the years, the total number of students served by the SDC has increased. In the 2010-11 school year, only 780 students used SDC services.

As more students with disabilities enroll at UC Davis, the accommodation process sparks issues. The SDC, students and professors do not always successfully collaborate, so some students are at risk of not being properly accommodated, according to Michael Sweeney, UC Davis’ chief campus counsel. 

“The good part is that [students are] succeeding and going to college,” Sweeney said. “The bad part is that we haven’t done a good job in supporting our faculty around bearing the brunt of that.”

More professors have been objecting to accommodations, which is allowed as long as they follow the process to object, Sweeney said.

“It’s okay for a professor to challenge and say that an accommodation is fundamentally changing the program,” Sweeney said. “But to do that, the professor has to utilize the right process.”

By law, UC Davis must provide accommodations for disabled students. As a public entity, UC Davis falls under Title II of the ADA and, therefore, cannot discriminate against disabled individuals, Sweeney said. UC Davis must also comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because it prohibits disability discrimination in programs receiving federal funding. 

“What it means is we have to make sure that our programs are open and accessible to individuals with disabilities,” Sweeney said.

The SDC’s goal is to “facilitate equal opportunity and full participation in UCD services, programs and activities,” according to Billeci. Since the SDC strives to provide reasonable and appropriate accommodations within the context of a student’s disability and the class, students should go to the SDC if they are unhappy with the accommodations they receive.

Accommodations are decided on a case-by-case basis for each individual and a wide range of services are available. For example, Rutten can take tests at the testing center, request a lab assistant or note taker, drop her workload to under 12 units, register for classes during priority registration and receive vision services or extra excused absences.

“It’s one of the things that are really nice to have even if you don’t use them, because you know that they’re there to back you up,” Rutten said. 

With the rise of technological advancements, new devices are available for students with disabilities. Joshua Hori, the accessible technology analyst for the SDC, develops and provides aids and apps to help students with note-taking, speaking, location awareness, project management and email organization. 

For students, faculty and staff with physical disabilities, the Mobility Assistance Shuttle can transport them around campus free of charge, according to Fredna Karneges, the manager of the Disability Management Services.

“We’re here to work it out and to advocate,” Billeci said. 

Animal science aims for inclusion

For students with disabilities in animal science, the department conducts individualized assessments in accordance with the SDC’s policies.

“At the end of the day, decisions are made and we really then implement them,” Murray said. “We’re not making the rules, it’s the Student Disability Center that makes the rules.”

In regards to students with service animals, the department follows the UC Davis Policy on Support and Service Animals. Accommodations depend on the specific lab facility and the extent of one’s physical limitations.

“There may be areas where a service or assistance animal poses a substantial and direct threat to health and safety that cannot be reduced or eliminated by a reasonable accommodation,” the policy states. “These areas may include laboratories, animal research areas, medical facilities and food preparation areas.”

Animal science facilities fall under these categories, which is why some students, like Rutten, cannot bring their service animals to labs. 

Additionally, certain “pathogen-free animal facilities” like the swine and poultry barns require special safety equipment before entering. In order to protect the animals, one must wear booties, walk through foot baths and sterilize shoes. Rutten has struggled with the fact that wheelchairs and crutches must be sterilized as well. It could take time to figure out the best methods for sterilizing this equipment, Murray said.

“[The SDC] tells us we have to figure out how to sterilize a wheelchair, then we will figure out how to do it,” Murray said. “It is difficult, but that’s the way it is.”

With the great range of study areas presented in a large major like animal science, Murray said that students with disabilities can pick the track that best suits them. Students with physical disabilities could work with smaller animals, like poultry or fish, or focus their study on animal behavior, which primarily involves observation. 

“Somebody who, for instance, has perhaps a bad back may not be able to work with cattle or sheep, but they could easily work with rabbits and mice or chickens,” Murray said. 

The department would not prohibit a student from specializing in larger animals, but It would require working with the SDC to figure out proper accommodations, Murray said. 

“Students go through vet school with disabilities,” Murray said. “You have to figure out what that particular individual needs to make it possible. What they are doing in each case is going to be unique.”

Introductory animal science classes, like ANS 001 and ANS 002, require students to handle large animals, regardless of the specialization one decides within the major. Since all students must complete these classes, if a student has physical limitations, the department must work with the SDC to accommodate the student, Murray said. For instance, if a student was in a wheelchair and was unable to “flip a sheep” in order to examine it, that student could instead direct an assistant through the task while still displaying knowledge. 

In the past, Murray said animal facilities have undergone modifications to become more accessible. For example, some facilities have been physically modified to provide access ramps, so students can observe and participate in labs if they use crutches or wheelchairs.  

Through helping students understand the array of opportunities in animal science, Murray said he has “always encouraged students to follow their dreams.” 

“Many students with disabilities have successfully participated in animal science courses and labs,” Wade said. “The department welcomes all students to explore this interesting field.” 

Similar experiences, different majors 

Students with disabilities and service animals deal with challenges across majors. 

Rutten’s friend Newman was born prematurely and was a world-champion cheerleader as a child, which resulted in the development of physical disabilities that affect her today. 

“I can’t remember the last time I didn’t hurt,” Newman said. 

Medical disabilities that have yet to be diagnosed also affect Newman. Even though her episodes resemble seizures, they do not fit the exact definition because she remains conscious. 

Like Rutten, Newman has a service dog. Missy, a German Shepherd that failed out of a police training program, can detect Newman’s episodes before they happen, and can also protect her.

“She’s wonderful because, unfortunately, people tend not to be very sensitive,” Newman said. “If they notice that I’m passed out, shaking, people have come and tried to steal things from me, instead of trying to get help. Missy regularly chases people off who are trying to take advantage of the fact that I’m not aware of what’s going on.” 

Newman also faces issues when bringing Missy to class. In one of her past animal science lectures, another student’s two emotional support Chihuahuas would bark at Missy. Weeks into the class, Missy barked back one day, resulting in the Animal Science Department telling Newman that Missy is too aggressive and could no longer attend any animal science classes or go in any animal science buildings. 

“That is partly why I switched majors, but I always wanted to do wildlife anyway,” Newman said. 

Brian Troupin, a third-year astrobiology major and veteran, successfully worked out accommodations to bring his service dog to his microbiology lab. When Troupin injured his hip after a fall during his army training in Texas, he needed mobility assistance. Cojo, a 12-year-old German Shepherd, assists Troupin over rough terrain. 

“They’re very generous [in the lab],” Troupin said. “They’ve set up a little area specifically for him and I show him where to go and he sits quietly.” 

During the process of figuring out accommodations, Troupin said that students should not be afraid to stand up for themselves. 

“You’re probably not always going to make the right arguments for the first time,” Troupin said. “But, unfortunately, there’s a lot of people out there who are going to interject themselves into your life just because of a service dog. You want to have something to say.”

Rutten, Newman and Troupin also find support on campus through various student organizations. Puppy Pals, a service dog and handler support group, provides dog training, education about service dog education etiquette and hosts events. 

The Student Veterans Organization, which Troupin is the vice-president of, strives to help veterans get involved in student activities. They organize events like tailgates and barbecues to help veterans become part of the UC Davis community. 

“We try and assist that process of bringing veterans into something more, giving them a solid foundation and then trying to make sure that they’re not alone,” Troupin said.

Despite setbacks, Rutten seeks greatness 

Rutten continues to work toward her animal science and management bachelor’s degree, despite the challenges she faces within the department. Currently, Rutten takes other classes for her major, but she has yet to figure out how to take ANS 002. Complications of sterilizing a wheelchair could take time to resolve, Murray said.  

“I’m looking at doing chemistry and [biology] because they’re requirements, but we’re totally ignoring ANS 002 because my advisor is pretty sure I can’t do it,” Rutten said. 

Overall, despite the challenges she faces with her major, and with being a disabled student, Rutten said she is happy to be back at UC Davis and with her friends. 

 “I could not be happier with being back,” Rutten said. “[Davis] is just such a good, supportive place.”

Determined to graduate and open her own service animal organization, Rutten remains confident that she will have success as long as she keeps fighting. 

“I’m a stubborn person,” Rutten said. “It’s a fight, that’s what it is. I’ve done the fight a lot and I’m okay doing it, but also it’s exhausting. I don’t want to have to.”

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — campus@theaggie.org 


  1. Rather than requiring hundreds of college campuses to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to customize buildings and classes for every possible disability, why not convert a half dozen current colleges in different regions of the country to full access facilities?

    I am not insensitive to her struggles but I too have a disability. My job reached a point where they told me they could not accommodate me. I was shocked and pressed a little but no compromise could be found. So I found a job that could accommodate me and it all worked out.

    A reasonable accommodation can be requested. It can also be denied. It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s reality.

  2. As a health care provider who has worked with both students and employees who often had to bear the burden of designing an accomodation which would be considered ‘reasonable’ by both parties, might i suggest the following as a starting platform: secure a second wheelchair, powered scooter or similar device to be kept in the controlled access area.
    Assign a trained, qualified assistant for transfer of the student from the community accessible mobility device to the lab chair, as well as to assist with animal handling, PPE, chair disinfection, and other duties during labs and other necessary periods. Cleaning of wheels/tires could be done by the assistant each time there is access to the controlled area, and disinfection of other components performed as appropriate for the level of potential for exposure to contaminants at any given time.


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