Updated: Mar 9, 2021
BY JENNIFER ROBACK | NEWS EDITOR
For people with disabilities, it can be hard to find accessible accommodations in New York. Some sidewalks are cracked, and traveling onto subway platforms can be difficult given that some stations have non-working elevators. For at least one student at LIU, there are additional adversities that she faces.
Portia Muehlbauer, 19, a sophomore majoring in Global Studies, who used to be part of the LIU Global program before coming to the LIU Brooklyn campus, suffers from a condition called dysautonomia, which affects her nervous system, along with a heart condition called Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia (IST). Together, the conditions can sometimes cause her to pass out with little to no warning at all and is a reason why she could no longer be in the LIU Global program.
“Because of my heart condition, if my feet aren't raised after passing out then my heart will stop which has happened before,” said Muehlbauer. “So if I am not around people who know about my condition and they sit me up or hold my shoulders, then it could cause my heart to stop.”
On most days, Muehlbauer uses a rolling walker. At the Brooklyn campus, some ramps allow for entering key buildings, including the Conolly Hall dorms -- where Muehlbauer resides -- along with the Pratt building and bookstore.
On-campus, Student Support Services is the department that helps aid students with disabilities. The university website notes that it helps to ensure a range of services including wheelchair-accessible rooms, preferential seating, and in working with individual faculty members to provide extended time during in-class assignments. Student Support Services did not respond to requests for comment.
This semester, Muehlbauer moved to Conolly. But a major problem she’s faced is in accessing the elevators. “With the elevators in Conolly, sometimes there's only one working and in the middle of the day when everyone is trying to cram into the elevator and you have a Roll-Aid with you,” she said. “Sometimes I end up waiting 15 minutes just to get to my room.”
The elevators have always been an issue in Conolly Hall. For the first couple of weeks of school, there were only two working.
For many people with disabilities, a common resource they use is service animals. According to the New York State Department of Health, a service dog is, “Any dog that has been or is being individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, provided that the dog is or will be owned by such person or that person's parent, guardian or other legal representative.”
The Case For A Service Animal
Muehlbauer is also facing another challenge as well. She is the owner of a golden retriever service dog named Biscuit who has been trained to help her with her condition. He also wears a collar to inform people that if Muehlbauer faints, not to call 911 unless she’s hurt.
“Biscuit would alert me to the fact that I am going to pass out before I even know. If I do pass out he helps to wake me and to make sure my feet are raised among other things,” said Muehlbauer.
However, Muehlbauer says that LIU has been less than accommodating to her right to have a service dog on campus in Conolly Hall, denying her application multiple times. She had submitted the proper paperwork to the Disability Student Services office before coming to school.
“I have been denied and they keep denying me to have Biscuit on campus. I did all the paperwork over the summer and sent it in by the deadline and heard nothing back until move-in day with the decision that I got denied,” said Muehlbauer.
According to Muehlbauer, one of the reasons the university denied her request was because pets are not allowed in Conolly Hall, LIU recommended that she move to campus housing elsewhere at 490 Fulton Street. “The problem with 490 was, it was $6000 more than what I was paying for Conolly,” said Muehlbauer, who adds that she was not offered any additional financial aid to cover the cost.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) notes that a service animal is not considered a pet. Therefore, people with service animals are not allowed to be separated based on the fact that they are in need of a service animal. According to the ADA, “The ADA requires you to modify your ‘no pets’ policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. This does not mean you must abandon your ‘no pets’ policy altogether but simply that you must make an exception to your general rule for service animals.”
“I had to go to the New York State Commission on Human Rights and look into my legal rights,” said Muehlbauer. LIU said it needed more documentation of my disability. And after going through three doctor letters the school kept coming back saying it's not sufficient enough.”
In a note from Muehlbauer’s doctor that was submitted to the school, it states that “It is my medical opinion that she must have a service dog with her at all times. The service dog has been trained to respond if patient collapses to help patient regain consciousness.” In response to the submission of the letter, Joanne Hyppolite, the Associate Director of LIU’s student support services, said in an email to Muehlbauer, “This most recently submitted letter does not demonstrate that the task(s) your dog provides is directly related to your disability.” Hyppolite did not respond to interview requests before press time.
By federal law, LIU is not allowed to deny people with disabilities the use of their service animal. Another reason given, according to Muehlbauer, was that the school determined that her disability cannot be determined physically. As of right now, Muehlbauer has spoken to legal counsel but does not intend to file officially if this issue can be solved by the end of the semester.
Other colleges in the area have rules set that is more accommodating to students who need services animals. According to a letter regarding service dogs in CUNY residential housing, sent to the Chief Student Affairs office for from Frederick P. Schaffer, a member of the General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs for CUNY schools, “If a person has a disability and the animal is necessary to give the disabled person an equal opportunity to use the residence hall and there is an identifiable relationship between the disability and the assistance provided, then the person and the animal must be accommodated in the residence halls.”
As of right now, there has been a temporary solution set in place after an emergency at home forced Biscuit to come to NY. He is temporarily allowed in the dorms but Muehlbauer was told that it is not a permanent situation. The LIU Promise office has aided her in getting Biscuit on campus for now.
In the same email conversation mentioned before, Hyppolite said that Muehlbauer is required to submit proof of vaccinations as well as proof of registration of her service animal or risk having Biscuit removed from resident halls. However, according to the service dog certification website, “In the United States, service dog registration is not required by law.” Therefore, asking for proof of registration and threatening the removal of Biscuit is also a violation if he gets removed for this reason.
“I think there is just a lack of knowledge and understanding of non-physical disabilities,” said Muehlbauer.