What Kind of Disabilities Are Protected Against Discrimination?

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If you have a disability, you're entitled to some important protections against discrimination—as long as your disability fits the definition provided by the Fair Housing Act, also known as the FHA. 

Characteristics of Qualifying Disabilities 

What the FHA considers to be a disability may be broader—or narrower—than you might think. The characteristics of a qualifying disability under this federal law include: 

  • The disability must "substantially limit" one or more "major life activities." This means that a disability must significantly affect activities such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, learning or working.
  • The disability doesn't have to be obvious. People don't have to be able to realize that you have a disability just by looking at you or spending time with you. You might be an asthmatic who doesn't have any obvious difficulty breathing thanks to medication. A leasing agent probably wouldn't guess, and she can't ask you if you have a disability. 
  • Your disability doesn't have to require the use of an assistive device. A mobility impairment can qualify as a disability under FHA rules even if you don't use a wheelchair, cane or walker. If you have a hearing impairment, you don't have to use a hearing aid. You're still eligible for the FHA's protections.
  • Your disability doesn't have to be physical. The FHA protects prospective and existing tenants with "physical or mental impairments" as well. Chronic fatigue syndrome, learning disabilities, and mental illness all fit the FHA's definition.
  • Addictions are disabilities, too. People who suffer from drug or alcohol addictions qualify as having a disability as well. 

Your Rights Under the FHA 

A landlord cannot refuse to rent to you—and a realtor or private individual can't refuse to sell to you—based solely on the fact that you have a disability. A landlord must additionally make "reasonable" accommodations for your disability when you move in.

This doesn't mean that he must install a wheelchair ramp for you because this would most likely represent what the law calls an "undue financial burden." But he must allow you to install a ramp at your own expense, and if you live in federally subsidized housing, the housing provider might be required to foot the bill with certain dollar limitations. Your landlord must allow you to keep a guide dog or therapy dog if one is required for your condition, even if he has a strict no-pet policy in place for other tenants, he must make an exception to the no-pet rule for you.

Landlords' Rights 

Even if you meet the definition of disability under FHA rules, you're not entitled to the FHA's protections if you pose a direct threat to other tenants' health or safety, or if renting to you would lead to substantial property damage. But a landlord can't decide you pose a threat on just a hunch—he must be able to point to specific past behavior that would justify either rejecting your rental application or evicting you.

Likewise, a landlord can evict a disabled tenant for reasons that are applied to all tenants, such as non-payment of rent. The FHA effectively requires that all tenants be treated equally, regardless of disability.