Removing Barriers for People with Disabilities

Access Living was founded in 1980 as one of the nation’s first ten Centers for Independent Living (CILs). The organization’s goal is simple: to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as those without disabilities to conduct lives of dignity and independence. With departments specializing in independent living skills, advocacy, and legal services, Access Living provides a unique combination of assistance in championing the rights and empowerment of people with disabilities. Access Living is the only CIL that has a Legal Services Program, and it is this impactful program that you support through the Investing in Justice Campaign.

Since its establishment, Access Living has been at the forefront of disability rights, and the legal department was created as a result of growing advocacy efforts. As Access Living’s work expanded, Marca Bristo, a founder and the current President and CEO of Access Living, realized that the organization needed a more compelling force to prompt change. Ken Walden, Access Living’s Managing Attorney for Fair Housing, described the legal team as the resource Access Living turns to when other advocacy efforts hit the proverbial brick wall.

Access Living’s legal team divides its work between individual civil cases, most of which are settled without litigation, and broader impact litigation to improve the rights of people with disabilities, such as the Olmstead Cases. The legal staff consists of three attorneys who deal with fair housing enforcement and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act cases, and a fair housing investigation coordinator.

One of the greatest challenges people with disabilities face is finding accessible housing. The Fair Housing Act of 1988 and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development forbid discrimination against people with disabilities from landlords and building owners, and provide guidelines for structural features that ensure accessibility. Yet many buildings remain inaccessible. Often building owners are unaware that there are architectural guidelines, or are reluctant to comply with regulations. Much of Access Living’s fair housing legal work centers on informing property managers of accessible architectural design (of which Access Living’s building is an exemplary model), and ensuring that such features are implemented.

In addition to aiding individual fair housing cases, Access Living’s legal team conducts fair housing tests throughout Cook County. Two testers of equal status, one with a disability and one without, both inquire after the same housing unit. The test assesses the quality of service shown to each tester and determines if the apartment owner discriminates against the disabled tester. Access Living determines which apartment buildings to test either at random, by selecting an advertised property from a rental listing, or by targeting a specific housing compound or issue to investigate.

In 2015, Access Living investigated possible discrimination against deaf renters. Two testers, one deaf and one without a disability, called five rental groups and inquired about the same unit. The deaf tester called using the Internet Protocol Relay System (IP Relay) and received discriminatory treatment on account of his disability. The property managers would hang up when the deaf tester called, quote higher price information than they gave the tester without a disability, and refuse to respond to the deaf tester’s subsequent inquires.

Based on these fair housing tests, Access Living filed five federal complaints against the housing providers. Each of the cases resolved in a favorable settlement for Access Living’s clients. The settlements mandated that the discriminatory housing providers participate in fair housing training, and all but one case granted Access Living first dibs on a specified number of apartment units when they were ready to be rented.

Finding an accessible housing unit is only half of the obstacle people with disabilities face in trying to secure a home. Ninety-eight percent of the people Access Living assists live on household incomes that fall below Federal Poverty Guidelines, and many of their clients rely on vouchers to pay rent. Since most accessible apartment buildings are newer and expensive, Access Living’s clients struggle to find affordable housing that meets their specific needs. A brief search of a popular apartment rental website revealed that only 3% of current apartment listings in Cook County would be affordable under a one bedroom voucher and are wheelchair accessible.

Despite the numerous legal and physical barriers people with disabilities are forced to confront, Ken said that the most persistent obstruction to equality is cultural perception. Stereotyping, ignorance, low expectations, and ill-informed assumptions continue to impact the public’s understanding of disabilities and the millions of people who live with them. Unlike other civil rights movements, the campaign for disabled rights has progressed slowly. Ken attributed this more gradual pace to a lack of representation of people with disabilities in entertainment and media.

Another disparity has been the lack of access people with disabilities have to public spaces. Institutionalization, segregation in schools, and discrimination in public transportation and housing options have largely prevented the everyday visibility of people with disabilities. The tireless work of Access Living’s legal team helps to overcome this barrier by enforcing the right to equal treatment and ensuring there are opportunities for their clients to participate in society, regardless of their mental and physical differences.

As Ken said, Nothing teaches tolerance better than being surrounded by people who are different than you.