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July 27, 2005

Bigotry for rent

Renters who have disabilities face far more discrimination than blacks or Latinos, says a new study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Released Monday, the Chicago Tribune did a story on it which ran on Monday. "Disabled face housing bias" was the headline. Which I thought particularly telling in light of the first sentence (the "lede," in newspaper talk), which was this: "Renters with disabilities in the Chicago area experience more housing discrimination than blacks or Latinos, according to a federal study."

So why didn't the headline reflect that -- that disabled people face more discrimination than any other group?

One can only speculate. I, of course, am always ready to speculate. My speculation is that it doesn't seem to editors that the issue is as big as it is -- even though the words right there in the story say otherwise. This seems to me to be just part of the general overall belief that disability discrimination stories are not viewed as being about a real national problem -- as often as they get reported, they still register in peoples' minds as incidents that happen to individual people. Only that; nothing more.

Which is just another facet of the persistent problem we have with disability rights. Discrimination doesn't seem to seem real to folks outside the disability rights movement. If anybody has any real good theories as to why that is, I'd love to hear about them.

Back to the HUD study: Many of those with disabilities working as testers in the study never got past an initial phone call. "Hearing-impaired people were discriminated against approximately 50 percent of the time when using a telephone-operator relay to search for rentals," said HUD. "Mobility impaired people using wheelchairs faced discrimination about a third of the time when they visited rental properties."

The other thing that I found interesting was the fact that the study was done in Chicago. It wasn't because Chicago landlords were any more or less prone to discriminate against disabled renters, the Tribune was told; no, it was because there was a good activist disability community there who could provide the "testers" for the study.

Reading that was both heartening and sad. Heartening to know that there were enough crips to do the testing, and that this got reported in the Tribune. Sad to realize that so many communities in the U.S. still have such small activist disability communities. Or none at all.

HUD has a press release on the study which you might want to read.
COMMENT-BODY:>>>Discrimination doesn't seem to seem real to folks outside the disability rights movement. If anybody has any real good theories as to why that is, I'd love to hear about them.

My theory is that it doesn't seem real to many people with disabilities either. Every wheelchair user requires help entering the homes of most of our friends. Many severely disabled people cannot access even ADAAG-compliant restrooms without help. We are used to making our own accommodations, and we are used to not holding the need to do this against most of the people we know. I have noticed that a few urban people with disabilities have what seems to me the luxury of living what might be called disabled lives? ยจ they just do not face the grinding daily need to cope with physically difficult or impossible environments because they have managed to limit their lives to physically convenient spaces or to access free or affordable personal assistance that they don't routinely have to bargain their souls for.

No, I'm not trying to be combative; I'm just trying to suggest that for plenty of severely disabled people who live mainstream lives in big cities and in smalltown USA, daily life requires living with discrimination with grace. Some of these people are active in the disability rights movement too, and perceive a need to pick their battles.

Yes, I know your question referred to people outside the disability rights movement. My point is that their perception is partly shaped by their knowledge of disability activists.

But the easy answer to your question is that money trumps anything. To many it seems moral to demand civility as long as civility doesn't require spending money. I think some people consider it immoral to demand that people spend money on someone else's requirements.

Posted by mjohnson at July 27, 2005 10:58 AM