Is That Really a Disability?

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One out of four adults in the United States is living with a disability. At approximately 61 million individuals, that is a significant number.

Those who fit into this category might not align with the vision that the term “disability” tends to conjure. Many associate a disability with someone who uses a wheelchair, has lost one of the five senses, or suffers from a major neurological condition or development disorder. But this is just part of the story.

Under disability rights laws, such as the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a “disability” is defined as a physical or mental condition that makes it more difficult for someone to perform daily tasks than it does for the average person.

The purpose of the FHA and ADA is to protect people living with a disability from discrimination. Those who qualify under these laws must be granted exceptions, or reasonable accommodations, from policies that interfere with their ability to fully use and enjoy certain places—in the case of the FHA, their home.

Alternatively, the purpose of disability benefit laws, such as Workers’ Compensation and Social Security Disability Insurance, is to provide financial support to individuals who aren’t able to work due to their impairment. Predictably, under these laws, “disability” is defined narrowly and only applies to a limited number of people.

Disability rights laws are purposefully broad and meant to cover a wide swath of the population. For example, worse-than-average vision, which is anything less than 20/20, is a disability under these laws. The standard is so far-reaching that neither medical or scientific evidence, nor even a diagnosis, is necessary to make an FHA disability determination.

An individual living with a disability qualifies for a reasonable accommodation by showing a related need for the exception to the housing policy. But this is easy to establish—a related need, or nexus, is any aid that alleviates a symptom or effect of the disability. This can come in many forms, from allowing an assistance animal who helps a resident manage PTSD in a no-pets dwelling to assigning a lower mailbox for a resident who uses a wheelchair.

Although this is a low bar to clear, it’s not a free-for-all. Unless the disability and related need are obvious (for example, a person who is visually-impaired with a guide dog), a community manager may require a letter confirming the individual’s symptoms and how the requested accommodation alleviates them. Although healthcare clinicians usually write verification letters, it’s not a requirement. A social worker, a fellow member of a peer support group, or anyone who has personal or professional knowledge about the situation can supply this documentation.

Issues with reasonable accommodation requests for assistance animals arise in many cases because landlords, community managers, and the public aren’t familiar with the legal definition of a disability. As a result, they often suspect claims that are valid under the broad standard set by the FHA and ADA are fraudulent. Residents face bias and feel judged by others in the community who think they are being dishonest about their need for the animal—precisely the behavior disability rights laws are in place to prevent!

The next time you find yourself skeptical at the authenticity of someone’s reasonable accommodation request, remember that the laws are designed to be overly inclusive. Try to treat the person with a little bit of grace. You never know what battle someone is fighting behind closed doors.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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