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Disability Pride Month: Understanding the ADA and Housing

July is Disability Pride Month, celebrating the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, 33 years ago. On July 26, 1990, Congress passed the ADA with bipartisan support that we cannot even imagine today. House support included 248 Democrats, 155 Republicans, and nine not voting. The Senate had 44 Democrats, 32 Republicans, and 16 not voting in support of the ADA.

The Disability Pride Flag
The Disability Pride Flag

A Brief History of the Disability Rights Movement and ADA

The ADA expanded upon Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which says, "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Basically, if an organization receives federal funds, it cannot discriminate against persons with disabilities.

Judy Heumann considered the "mother of the disability rights movement" (see a PBS piece about her here), credits passing Section 504 into law as part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as one of the first times the disability community came together – in a very visible way with sit-ins and protests – to create a disability rights movement.

The work to pass Section 504 led to almost 20 years of work to pass the ADA, which expanded Section 504 to include the everyday world – businesses such as hotels, restaurants, doctors' offices, non-profit service providers, commercial facilities, transportation, employment, state & local government, and telecommunication, etc. As voting on the ADA approached, disability advocates organized the Capital Crawl on March 12, 1990, where hundreds of protestors abandoned their mobility aids & started crawling up the Capitol steps to the entrance of the Capital. Protesters included children like Jennifer Keelan, climbing the stairs for a future they deserve (see her story here).

The passing of the ADA did not suddenly make for an accommodating world. Many building owners, companies, and other organizations initially took a "wait and see" attitude to creating accommodations. Thirty-three years later, we are still fighting for accessibility.

“Maybe the ADA’s true value is as a catalyst. In 1990 it changed how disabled Americans saw themselves. Both the law’s strengths and weaknesses continue to drive the disability community’s evolution today.” – Andrew Pulrang in Forbes

Housing and the ADA

When the ADA passed in 1990, it did not include housing discrimination and accessibility because lawmakers felt existing Fair Housing laws covered those areas. While the original 1968 Fair Housing Act did not include disability discrimination, it was added as a protected class in 1988.

Today, the CDC estimates one in four people in the United States have a disability. Under the Fair Housing Act, disability is defined as

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

  • Having a record or history of such impairment

  • Perception of disability is covered under the FHA

Yet, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NAFHA) estimates "Discrimination based on disability accounted for more than half the fair housing complaints filed in 2021.”

HUD has seen the number of disability-related complaints rise recently. In 2020, HUD received 461 complaints from people and organizations alleging disability discrimination under Section 504. By 2022, that number rose to 582; in 2023, HUD had 202 complaints. In fact, HUD says, ""Section 504 complaints are the most common type of civil rights related complaint received with respect to the administration of HUD programs and account for more than half of such complaints."

Examples of Disability-related Fair housing violations look like:

  • A landlord refusing a tenant their Reasonable Modification, stating that it will decrease property value

  • A landlord asking an individual with a disability to prove their ability to live independently

  • A landlord refuses to allow a tenant their support animal due to a "no pets" policy (denying them their right to a Reasonable Accommodation)

  • A landlord charging a tenant with a disability a higher security deposit

Clearly, we have a problem.

“In the over thirty years since HUD implemented its Section 504 regulations, the percentage of the U.S. population who are individuals with disabilities has continued to increase and diversify. In addition, as a larger share of the population increases in age, HUD will continue to play a critical role in providing affordable housing opportunities to allow older adults to age in place. This is particularly important given the significant population of older adults with disabilities, who will require accessible and affordable housing to age in place.” – Federal Register

Reasonable Accommodation and Reasonable Modification(s)

Under the Fair Housing Act, individuals with disabilities have a right to Reasonable Accommodation(s) or Reasonable Modification(s) if they need them to enjoy the full use of their home. As our population ages, Reasonable Modifications are increasingly important.

Man in wheelchair cooking at stove

A Reasonable Accommodation is a change or exception to a housing provider's policy, practice, or procedure (such as making an exception to a "no pets" policy to allow for a support animal, providing a priority parking space, allowing a caregiver to stay extended hours despite visiting policies the housing provider may have, etc.).

A Reasonable Modification is a physical or structural change to the property (ex: installing grab bars, widening a doorway, installing a ramp, etc.).

Reasonable Accommodation and Reasonable Modification(s) facts:

  • You can ask for as many reasonable Accommodation and Reasonable Modification(s) as you need to enjoy the full use of your home

  • You can ask for a reasonable Accommodation or Reasonable Modification(s) at any time in your tenancy (it does not have to be right when you move in)

  • Landlords CANNOT ask about the nature or severity of your disability. They also can't ask for details about a specific diagnosis

  • If the disability is not "readily apparent," landlords CAN ask for documentation from your care provider linking the need for the R.A. or R.M. to your disability

If you or someone you know needs help with Reasonable Accommodations or Reasonable Modifications, we can help; contact us today.

Celebrating Disability Pride Month

Disability Pride Parades began with the first one in Boston in 1990 to celebrate the passing of the ADA. Chicago held its first Disability Pride Parade in 2004 (learn more about this year's parade here). This year, Chicago also launched its first "DisFest" celebrating performers with disabilities.

Do we have work to do to create a more accessible world? Absolutely. But is the ADA worth celebrating? Definitely.

To learn more about Disability Rights and the ADA, we recommend these articles:

  • "A chance to 'amplify one another': What is Disability Pride Month?" (USA Today)

  • "Disability Justice and Equity in Housing" (Shelterforce)

  • "31 Years Later, 31 Things About The Americans With Disabilities Act" (Forbes)

  • "Activist Judy Heumann led a reimagining of what it means to be disabled" (NPR)



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