Dealing with Prospects, Applicants, and Residents Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

November 15, 2012
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In the December lesson, Fair Housing Coach reviews fair housing requirements when dealing with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. The law’s disability provisions apply to millions of Americans, including people who are profoundly deaf as well as those with various hearing impairments caused by accident, injury, illness, or the aging process.

Here are some tips from the December lesson on how to ensure fair housing compliance when dealing with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing:

Welcome Contacts from Prospects Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Don’t discriminate against deaf or hard-of-hearing prospects—regardless of how they contact your leasing office. Traditionally, people who are deaf or hard of hearing communicated by telephone using TTY devices (also known as TDD or text telephones)—a device with a typewriter keyboard that displays typed conversations. If both parties have a TTY device, they can communicate by typing messages to each other directly. Otherwise, calls go through the national toll-free telecommunications relay service, which uses a relay operator as a go-between: The TTY user types input into the device and the relay operator reads the message to the person receiving the call, and then types the person’s response back to the TTY user.

Federal experts say TTY machines are almost a thing of the past, now that new communication devices allow people to make phone calls through the relay service using almost any device with a keypad, such as a laptop or cell phone. Some skip the relay system altogether by communicating via email or text messaging. And a video relay system translates American Sign Language into text or computer-generated speech and back again.

Despite the increasing use of new technology, you should still be prepared to handle phone calls from TTY and other devices using the relay system. It’s unlawful to refuse to accept calls via the relay system simply because it seems more cumbersome or takes more time than standard telephone calls. You must also ensure that prospects using the relay system receive the same information about prices, availability, rental qualifications as received by prospects making standard telephone calls.

Ensure Effective Communications During Site Visits. Treat prospects who are deaf or hard of hearing with professional courtesy when they visit your community. Welcome them to your leasing office as you would any other prospect—don’t treat them differently or ask disability-related questions simply because a prospect wears hearing aids or uses American Sign Language to communicate.

Grant Reasonable Requests for Visual Smoke Detectors and Other Safety Devices. Fair housing law requires you to allow residents who are deaf or hard of hearing, at their expense, to make reasonable modifications to their units or common areas when necessary to allow them to fully use and enjoy the property. Common requests involve replacement of conventional safety devices—fire alarms, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and the like—that use alarms, buzzers, and other sounds to alert residents to potential dangers. Others involve intercoms and buzzers that alert residents to visitors at their door or building entrance.

Since sound-based devices are of little or no use to residents who are deaf or hard of hearing, you may be asked to provide alternatives that use strobe lights or other visual alerts. If you generally provide conventional devices to your residents, then you must grant requests from residents who are deaf or hard of hearing for their visual equivalent.

Grant Disability-Related Requests for Assistance Animals. Whatever your policy on pets, it’s important to remember that assistance animals are not considered pets under fair housing law. If you have a policy banning or restricting pet ownership, you must consider making an exception as a reasonable accommodation to allow a resident who is deaf or hard of hearing to keep an assistance animal that is trained to alert her to sounds.

For the complete lesson, including case examples, and a quiz on the topic, see “How to Comply with Fair Housing Law When Dealing with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing,” available on our homepage and archive.