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Defining Disability: Jumping Through Legal Hoops
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Defining Disability: Jumping Through Legal Hoops

Your mind and body are your own. For better or worse, they define the way you experience, inhabit, and function in your world. No one else sees with your eyes, moves with your body, perceives with your mind. You know your truth. But how do you make others see it? How do you secure the legal rights and protections you are entitled to, especially when your disability is largely invisible? Read on for more strategies and resources to help you understand and assert your rights under the law from housing to everyday living and even to taxes.

ADA Protections Qualifying for protection under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act may not be quite as much of a challenge as qualifying for Social Security disability benefits. The ADA covers an array of impairments, from the physical to the psychological to the developmental. The primary focus of the ADA is to safeguard those with any kind of functional difference from discrimination on the basis of that difference. 

This includes ensuring that Americans with disabilities have equitable access to housing, education, employment, and social services. It also ensures that businesses and other public facilities provide reasonable accommodations to ensure access and ease of use for persons of all abilities. Accommodations most often required by law in public spaces include wheelchair access, such as ramps and elevators; voice-enabled crosswalk signals, and door placards inside public buildings printed in Braille to enable more than 10 million Americans with vision impairments to navigate public spaces safely and independently.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the ADA is that it protects the rights of persons with disabilities to meet the most important and fundamental of human needs, from housing to education and work. Employers, for example, must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities, which could include anything from modifying work equipment to installing grab bars in employee bathrooms. In addition, job recruiters are expressly forbidden from discriminating against qualified candidates in their hiring decisions on the basis of disability.

The Fair Housing Act We all have a fundamental right to fair housing. This is true for persons with disabilities or without. But if you are a person with a disability, getting access to fair housing can be much more difficult. While the ADA ensures the equal access of persons with disabilities to public spaces, such as hotels, motels, dormitories, and the common areas of multifamily housing properties, the Fair Housing Act protects the rights of persons seeking to rent or buy a home.

The Act forbids property owners, landlords, property managers, banks, and mortgage providers from discriminating against qualified applicants on the basis of disability. But the Act goes even further, making provisions for housing and rental assistance for some applicants, and ensuring that all reasonable accommodations are provided, from portable ramps to bathroom grab bars, in rental homes.

The “Unable to Work” Criterion One of the most common, and powerful, standards for defining disability is the “unable to work” criterion. This is the standard typically used to determine one’s eligibility for Social Security disability pay, for example. But this criterion is much more complex than it initially appears. To meet the definition of disability under this standard means not just that you’re not currently able to work, but that you also either haven’t been able to work for at least a year or are not likely to be able to return to work for at least that amount of time. In addition, your condition must be considered “severe” according to the parameters established by the Social Security Administration, or else you must be able to prove in some other way that you can no longer do the work you once did as well as any other type of work.

Tax Credits In addition to the support that may be available through Social Security or under the terms of the Fair Housing Act, the government also provides a range of other programs to benefit persons with disabilities. For example, if you are a person with limited mobility who is also earning an income, you may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of anywhere from $3500 to $7,500 per household. The key here is to know your rights. Many disability resource agencies can provide free advice on the various government programs you may not even have known existed!

The Takeaway Defining your disability may not be hard for you. You know it when you feel it when you experience it in daily life. But defining your disability under the terms of the law can be a far more formidable challenge. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, for example, you’re likely going to have to prove that you meet the program’s various criteria for being “unable to work.” Fortunately, qualifying for legal protections of access, equity, accommodation, and non-discrimination under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act is less difficult. Such powerful legislation can protect your rights in regard to the most important needs of life, from housing to work to school. There are also a variety of resources available, including financial programs and tax credits to help you meet your needs and protect yourself and your family as you cope with your disability and strive to live your best life.

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