of Housing and Urban Development
Barbara Knox 1
The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers several civil rights laws applicable to HUD programs and to the housing industry at large. In 1988 Congress amended the Fair Housing Act of 1967 to include protection against housing discrimination based on disability. Those amendments gave HUD the responsibility to enforce the acts provision by making determinations of discrimination and affording complainants legal representation before an administrative law judge or in Federal court.
Prior to 1988, HUD was already charged with ensuring that its programs did not discriminate against persons with disabilities under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The difference the Fair Housing Act makes in those protections is that its coverage extended beyond HUD funded housing to include most public and private housing in the country. The Fair Housing Act also covers most real estate related transactions, e.g., homeowners insurance, home equity loans, and loan packages sold on the secondary market.
Since the fair housing law extends to the private housing markets, HUD does Secretary-initiated complaint investigations. Based on information HUD receives, the Secretary can initiate its own investigation and initiate what is called a Secretary-initiated charge, very similar to a class action complaint.
Regarding new construction requirements of the Fair Housing Amendment Act, there are some general guidelines concerning accessibility requirements. These accessibility requirements do have some guidelines about providing environmental controls and other sorts of things that would allow a person with visual impairments to enjoy their unit. But many of the circumstances that come to us show us that needs are often individualized depending on the severity or nature of a persons disability.
The Midwest Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity within HUD investigates complaints alleging discrimination in housing received from individuals and organizations in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The office processes about 1,000 complaints each year. In fiscal year 1997, 27 percent of the complaints filed with the Midwest Regional Office were based on disability, and 80 percent of those were based on physical rather than a mental disability. In the State of Illinois, 23 complaints were filed in fiscal year 1997. Thirty-one percent were based on disability, and 86 percent of those were solely based on physical disability.
Only four or five complaints each year are from visually impaired individuals or their advocates. Those low figures probably speak more to the agencys failure to do sufficient outreach to the blind and visually impaired rather than an absence of discrimination against such individuals in housing. Despite the fact that the agency has worked towards making itself and its programs known, the agency probably still has not effectively informed all segments of the public that the agency exists and operates to protect their rights.
Most complaints filed with HUD on the basis of blindness or vision impairment involve assistive or service animals, e.g., guide dogs. There are still landlords who believe that guide dogs are pets rather than an essential part of a blind persons physical being. The agency has just concluded a case in Rockford, Illinois, involving a HUD-subsidized project. A blind tenant wanted management to make various signs and written materials more accessible to him. After finding in favor of the tenant, HUD entered into a settlement agreement with the owner to provide tape-recorded messages of leases, monthly newsletters, and admission information to visually impaired tenants.
There are limitations in these laws and in the way these laws have been written. Even though HUD has had accessible guidelines published since 1992 and published a manual for developers, builders, and architects giving them specific guidelines on how to comply with the Fair Housing Act, the vast majority of new construction of four units or multifamily housing, whether it is being sold or rented, do not comply with the Federal law. Congress specifically decided not to require that building codes themselves be amended in jurisdictions to comply with the act. That means the first defense of developers and/or architects is that they did not know that such was required. This is an additional problem the agency faces with meager resources trying to enforce the law.
Finally, HUD as an agency is sensitive to the blind and visually impaired. For instance, the agency offers a Braille version of the Fair Housing Act regulations and provides assistance to visually impaired persons who wish to file complaints. Further applications for HUD assistance receive a front-end review of the application to assure that that recipient has certified that it will comply with section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Additionally, a number of HUD employees have vision impairments, and the agency has made an effort to provide these employees with the tools necessary to do their jobs.
Employment Opportunity Commission
Celeste Davis 2
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That act prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from engaging in any employment practice which discriminates against a qualified individual with a disability. A qualified individual is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. The protection of the ADA extends to employees as well as to applicants for employment.
EEOC rules and regulations require persons believing that they have a claim against an employer to file a charge with the agency within 300 days from the date of harm. Once a charge is filed, the EEOC will conduct an investigation to determine whether or not there is cause to believe the allegations in the charge. Additionally, similar to other Federal civil rights agencies, the EEOC can initiate a Commissioner complaint against an employer without a complaint having been filed. This procedure originates in Washington, D.C., and is also a tool used by the agency to enforce equal employment practices.
For the 29-month time period, January 1996 through May 1998, the Midwest Regional Office of the EEOC received a total of 2,612 charges alleging employment discrimination on the basis of disability. Sixty-seven of those complaints, 2.6 percent, dealt with the issues of blindness and/or visual impairment. Those 67 charges are open, i.e., unresolved, charges at this time.
of Health and Human Services
Patricia Lucas 3
The mission of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (HHS) is to ensure that all programs and facilities that are recipients of money received through HHS, e.g., medicare, medicaid, and certain block grant programs, are offered in a nondiscriminatory way to all people without regard to race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, and disability.
The laws the agency enforces are similar to those handled by other Federal civil rights agencies: title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975. OCR also has enforcement authority under the Public Health Service Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, in admission to health-related training programs funded under the act, and requires facilities assisted by the Hill-Burton Act to provide health care services to all persons residing in the service area in a nondiscriminatory manner.
OCR estimates that approximately 230,000 group and institutional providers of federally assisted services are subject to the nondiscrimination laws it enforces. Some of the programs that the Midwest Regional Office of OCR deals with include HMOs, nursing homes, day care centers, counseling agencies, and services offered through the State of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Human Services. The agency also initiates outreach activities and reviews new programs, such as HMOs, coming into an area. In addition, the agency assists any facility in developing internal policies and procedures to ensure that such are being provided in a nondiscriminatory manner.
The laws governing HHS only make discrimination illegal; they do not require affirmative action by the providers. HHS often receives inquiries about lack of access to medical care, and what that means here in Illinois is that there are no hospitals on the south side of Chicago. HHS cannot mandate anybody to build a hospital, or require a doctor or an office to open. HHS can only require that the facilities that do exist do not discriminate.
Regarding complaints to OCR on the basis of blindness or visual impairment, HHS receives very few such complaints. The kind of complaints HHS has received over the years with respect to the blind and the visually impaired were mostly guide dog situations. These complaints were particularly with regard to hospitals where either employee might want to use their dog to get to work, or visitors is to the hospital might need to use guide dogs. The funding for Federal enforcement agencies has been reduced in recent years. This has affected the amount of outreach by the agency, and as a result reduced the number of people knowing about their rights to file a complaint.
Shirley Mason Carter 4
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), U.S. Department of Labor, similar to other Federal civil rights agencies, receives and investigates complaints from individuals who have disabilities. The main responsibility of the agency, however, is to ensure that companies that provide goods and/or services to the Federal Government and have a contract of at least $2,500 develop affirmative action plans for individuals with disabilities. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires covered government contractors to undertake affirmative action for qualified handicapped individuals, and it is this law the OFCCP enforces with respect to the blind and visually impaired. These affirmative action plans state that the companies will undertake affirmative action and equal opportunity efforts in all their personnel practices, including but not limited to, hiring, promotions, training, recruitment, transfers, and any other mobility including to the executive level.
Affirmative action plans for the disabled are written plans and must include several factors, including: (1) a schedule of review of position descriptions to review for physical and mental limitations to assure that the company is not excluding anyone who could otherwise be qualified to do jobs; (2) procedures to ensure that proper consideration is given to all the qualifications of any individual that applies for a job or promotional opportunity; (3) reasonable accommodation, i.e., reasonable in that it does not cause any undue hardship to the company, affording individuals with disabilities equal employment opportunity; and (4) positive outreach to recruit disabled individuals when companies have openings for positions.
The enforcement activities of OFCCP are in four areas. First, the OFCCP conducts compliance reviews and investigates complaints from individuals. Second, the agency negotiates compliance agreements and letters of commitment to ensure compliance with the affirmative action requirements. Third, the OFCCP provides technical assistance to aid contractor understanding of, and compliance with, Federal nondiscrimination and affirmative action requirements. Fourth, the OFCCP can recommend enforcement actions to the Solicitor of the U.S. Department of Labor if a company does not comply with their affirmative action and equal employment opportunity obligations.
So, in addition to an individual with a disability being able to come to the OFCCP and file a complaint within 180 days of the action, the OFCCP also monitors and reviews companies for its equal employment opportunity to individuals with disabilities without complaints being filed to ensure that companies have procedures and employment practices that afford equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.
Don Ray Pollar 5
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Education, enforces five Federal statutes that prohibit discrimination in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. Discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin is prohibited by title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sex discrimination is prohibited by title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972. Discrimination on the basis of disability is prohibited by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Similarly, title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Age discrimination is prohibited by the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.
The civil rights laws enforced by the Office for Civil Rights extend to all State education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, State vocational rehabilitation services agencies, libraries, and museums that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. Programming activities that receive Federal funding must be operated in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Since January 1, 1996, OCR has received 18 complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of blindness and/or visual impairment. The allegations in those complaints are most often related to the provision of related aids and services, e.g., books in Braille, and modifications to allow students who are blind or have a visual impairment to take tests. All OCR complaints regarding the blind and visually impaired have been resolved, i.e., the agency has either obtained agreements from schools that they will provide the services, or the services have been provided.
The Department also funds early intervention programs for certain individuals with disabilities. In these programs, Federal rules and regulations require grant recipients of these early intervention programs to provide services to individuals starting at 3 years of age. So there are established programs for the provision of services in terms of evaluation, and services at the early stages of disability.
A problem in the nondiscrimination education laws, however, is that they only mandate nondiscriminatory behavior. The laws do not require any affirmative action effort, i.e., deliberate and positive efforts to ensure equal education opportunity for individuals who are blind or have a visual impairment. Hence OCR can only ensure that the education programs and activities that are funded by the Federal Government are operated in an nondiscriminatory manner. OCR does make an effort to do technical assistance and outreach to organizations, but the scope and jurisdiction of the agencys enforcement power is limited.
1 Statement by Barbara Knox to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Barbara Knox is the regional director of the Midwest Office, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
2 Statement by Celeste Davis to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Celeste Davis is the regional counsel of the Midwest Regional Office, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
3 Statement by Patricia Lucas to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Patricia Lucas is a branch chief in the Midwest Regional Office, Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
4 Statement by Shirley Mason Carter to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Shirley Mason Carter was the deputy director of the Region V, Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs, U.S. Department of Labor, at the time of the conference. She is now the regional director of Region IV, Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs, U.S. Department of Labor.
5 Statement by Don Ray Pollar to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, conference on Civil Rights Issues Facing the Blind and Visually Impaired in Illinois, Chicago, IL, May 29, 1998. Don Ray Pollar is an investigator in the Midwest Regional Office, Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education.