Providing Reasonable Accommodations for the Visually Impaired

Providing Reasonable Accommodations for the Visually Impaired

Federal Fair Housing law makes it illegal to discriminate against prospects and residents with disabilities. This includes persons who are blind or who suffer from some other visual impairment, ranging from significant to total vision loss.

Federal Fair Housing law makes it illegal to discriminate against prospects and residents with disabilities. This includes persons who are blind or who suffer from some other visual impairment, ranging from significant to total vision loss.

Visually impaired prospects or residents may not need anything more than what you provide to residents with no visual impairment. Others may request reasonable accommodations or modifications to enable them to use and enjoy the site as much as residents with no visual impairment. Knowing how to handle such requests will help you avoid noncompliance with Fair Housing laws.

We spoke with attorney Theresa Kitay, an expert on federal Fair Housing law and HUD rules, about avoiding discrimination against visually impaired residents and applicants. With Kitay's help, we have identified six rules to help you comply with Fair Housing requirements when dealing with visually impaired prospects and residents.

Rule #1: Accommodate Visually Impaired Applicants

An applicant who is visually impaired may ask for accommodations during initial contact with your staff. For example, because of his impairment, the prospect may ask for assistance in reading the rental application and criteria. He might even ask you for a copy of the rental application in Braille.

Your staff should “take reasonable steps to offer a prospect who is visually impaired alternative ways to get the information needed during the application process,” says Kitay. The rules in HUD Handbook 4350.3 require you to ensure that visually impaired applicants are given the same access to your site as those who are not visually impaired, and that you communicate with them effectively. This may include taking any of the following measures:

Provide documents in Braille. HUD says you must investigate providing a document, such as a lease, in Braille if an applicant requests it. If you determine that it would be an undue administrative or financial burden to provide documents in Braille, you don't need to do so. But HUD requires you to make some other effort to accommodate the applicant's disability and communicate effectively with him. HUD recommends asking whether the applicant knows where you can get these documents transcribed into Braille at a reasonable cost [HUD Handbook 4350.3, exh. 2-2].

Make large-print copies of documents. Have copies of your rental application and other materials, such as leasing selection criteria, site rules, and leases, available in large print, says Kitay. This can help prospects with significant, but not total, vision loss. You can easily and inexpensively create these documents on a copy machine using the large-print function, says HUD.

Record paperwork on audiotape. Have a member of your leasing staff read your rental application, leasing selection criteria, and site rules into a tape recorder, suggests Kitay. Keep copies of the tape on hand in your leasing office for those who request them.

Read information aloud. Read the application information aloud to visually impaired applicants if they ask you to do so. For example, you may need to assist them in filling out the rental application, by reading the questions aloud and writing in the answers for them.

Let applicants get outside help. Let visually impaired prospects take the application materials off-site to review and complete the form with someone else.

PRACTICAL POINTER: Kitay advises against reading the lease to visually impaired applicants. “You don't want to engage in a question-and-answer session over the interpretation of the lease,” says Kitay. Because leases are so technical, reading them aloud will probably serve no purpose. But always permit visually impaired applicants to take a copy of the lease off-premises, to review. Or have a copy of the lease translated into Braille or recorded on audiotape, if doing so would not be an undue administrative or financial burden.

Rule #2: Always Offer Site/Unit Tour to Visually Impaired Applicants

You might think you need not offer a visually impaired applicant a tour of the site or units. But you would be wrong and likely to run afoul of Fair Housing laws, says Kitay. Even applicants with little or no vision can benefit from a tour, and they can obtain a feel for the dimensions of the unit, she adds.

Take the same steps with a visually impaired applicant as you would with a sighted applicant. Ask the visually impaired prospect if she would like a tour, says Kitay. If she agrees, don't automatically offer assistance in getting to the unit. Wait for her to ask for assistance, Kitay suggests. Otherwise, you may find yourself in Fair Housing trouble.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As you tour the unit, give the applicant a detailed, oral description of the layout. For example, tell the applicant he is entering a hallway leading to a bedroom on the left with a bathroom at the right.

Rule #3: Don't Steer or Refuse to Rent to Visually Impaired Prospects

Illegal steering means guiding or directing applicants to live in one part of a neighborhood or site rather than another because of their race, sex, skin color, national origin, disability, religion, or familial status—or other characteristics, such as sexual orientation, protected under state law.

For example, steering visually impaired applicants to first-floor units or units with windows that face a wall rather than a courtyard, or refusing to rent to them, violates Fair Housing laws. But some managers have done this in the mistaken belief that people with visual impairments are safety risks—either to themselves or to others at your site—or that they “won't mind” the absence of a view, says Kitay.

Rule #4: Make Reasonable Accommodations, Modifications

A visually impaired resident may ask you to make physical changes (known as “modifications”) to his unit. The purpose of these changes is to allow him to use and enjoy the site on an equal basis with nondisabled residents.

You must grant a reasonable accommodation or modification request if an applicant or resident needs it to provide him with “full use and enjoyment” of the site, unless the change places an “undue financial or administrative burden” on your site. If you don't make the change, you may be found in violation of Fair Housing law.

Rule #5: Allow ‘Guide’ Pets

A visually impaired applicant or resident may ask you to waive your no-pets house rule, if you have one, by asking permission to have a guide dog. Guide dogs are service animals, not pets. You should let visually impaired applicants and residents keep one. Verify the disability and need for the guide dog only if the disability or need of the resident or applicant is not obvious.

As a general rule, visually impaired residents require guide dogs in order to have an equal opportunity to gain “full use and enjoyment” of the site. If your site has restrictions against pets, you will have to waive them for guide dogs.

For example, if your site has rules banning pets from common areas or limiting their size or weight, you must waive these rules for guide dogs. If your site does not let residents walk their dogs in certain areas, you will have to waive this rule for guide dogs, unless you have a dog-walking area that is easily accessible to visually impaired residents, says Kitay.

Any pet deposit you usually require must also be waived. But you can charge the resident for any damage the guide dog causes to your site, beyond normal wear and tear.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It is not often that you can deny a request to keep a guide dog. However, you may be able to deny such a request if the animal is not really a guide dog or a service animal needed to assist with a physical or emotional disability, but instead is just a pet that the visually impaired resident wants around the house.

If an applicant refuses to move in unless you construct (at cost to the site), an elaborate exercise room for the guide dog, that would be an example of an undue financial burden. Denying an applicant's request under those circumstances would be reasonable.

Rule #6: Keep Complete Written Records

Documentation is one of your best defenses against Fair Housing complaints, says Kitay. You should keep a variety of records, such as phone logs, guest cards, rental applications, letters to and from health-care providers, and records of modifications and accommodations (granted and denied).

Your records will document the reasons for your decisions and the steps you took in making them. If a Fair Housing complaint is ever brought against you, your records can show that you did not discriminate. Also, HUD requires you to keep such records.

Fair Housing complaints must be filed in federal court within two years of the time the discriminatory action took place—or within one year if the complaint is filed with HUD. However, certain state courts permit the filing of discrimination complaints for as long as six years after the discriminatory action took place.

Ask your attorney to check both federal and state law before you throw away records. If your state has no such laws or does not require you to keep records for more than two years, your policy should be to keep all records and supporting documents for at least two years.

  • Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.


Insider Source

Theresa L.Kitay, Esq: Law Offices of Theresa L. Kitay; Marina Del Rey, CA