One in four adults in the United States has a disability. With around 61 million people, that’s a significant number.
Those who fit into this category may not agree with the vision that the term “disability” evokes. Many associate disability with someone who uses a wheelchair, has lost one of the five senses, or has a severe neurological or developmental disorder. However, this is only part of the story.
Disability rights laws such as the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) define “disability” as a physical or mental condition that makes it more difficult for someone to perform daily tasks than is the case Average person.
The purpose of the FHA and the ADA is to protect people with a disability from discrimination. Those who qualify under these laws must be given exemptions or reasonable precautions from policies that affect their ability to fully use and enjoy certain places – in the case of the FHA, their home.
Alternatively, the purpose of disability benefits laws such as Employee Compensation and Social Security Disability Insurance is to provide financial assistance to people who are unable to work because of their disability. Under these laws, “disability” is predictably narrowly defined and only applies to a limited number of people.
Disability rights laws are intentionally broad and intended to cover a large proportion of the population. For example, abnormally poor eyesight that is less than 20/20 is a disability under these laws. The standard is so extensive that it does not require medical or scientific evidence, or diagnosis, to determine FHA disability.
A person with a disability qualifies for reasonable accommodation by demonstrating an appropriate need for the housing policy exemption. However, this is easy to determine – a related need or association is any help that alleviates a symptom or effect of the disability. This can be done in a variety of ways, from allowing an auxiliary animal to help a resident manage PTSD in a pet-free home, to assigning a lower mailbox for a resident who uses a wheelchair.
While this is a low bar to erase, it isn’t free for everyone. Unless the disability and related needs are obvious (e.g., a person who is visually impaired with a guide dog), a community administrator may request a letter detailing the person’s symptoms and the manner in which the accommodation requested it alleviates, to be affirmed. Although healthcare doctors usually write confirmation letters, it is not a requirement. A social worker, member of a peer support group, or anyone with personal or professional knowledge of the situation can provide this documentation.
In many cases, problems arise with adequate accommodation requests for help animals because landlords, community administrators and the public are unfamiliar with the legal definition of a disability. As a result, they often suspect that claims that are valid under the broad standard set by the FHA and ADA are fraudulent. Residents are biased and feel judged by others in the community who believe they are dishonest about their need for the animal – the very behavioral laws are in place to prevent this from happening!
Next time you are skeptical of the authenticity of a reasonable accommodation request, keep in mind that the laws are designed to be too comprehensive. Try to treat the person with a little grace. You never know what kind of battle someone is waging behind closed doors.
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