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Home as a tool for equity

norman-gary-col-sigCOVID-19 forces us to recognize the house and home ownership in new ways.

The house plays arguably multiple roles in our economic prosperity and in our overall health. In Maryland, people with disabilities comprise 19 percent of the overall population confronting the impact of the virus, which has worsened existing inequities, such as home ownership.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities recognizes people with disabilities as the largest minority population globally. Like other disadvantaged populations, inequities abound for this demographic, including, a lack of equal home ownership. Today, more than ever, we have an opportunity to expand home ownership and support the positive outcomes that employment has on health and home ownership.

Employment

As a blind person, and as chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, I personally and professionally know a great deal about reasonable accommodations. I have been disappointed, however, that it required a pandemic to shift our culture towards more teleworking.

Many of us may have once thought working actually required being physically present at an office with a colleague and a soda machine. Now, teleworking has shifted to the norm, not the exception.

Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers must provide qualified employees with disabilities with reasonable accommodations. This does not apply when such accommodation would cause an undue hardship. An accommodation that eliminates an essential function or fundamental duty of a position is not considered a reasonable accommodation.

For example, some federal courts have demonstrated skepticism as to whether remote working is a reasonable accommodation. In September 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance indicating that remote or teleworking is not necessarily or automatically a reasonable accommodation.

I use and rely on assistive technology as a form of reasonable accommodation. On productive days, my text to-speech software decides to treat me well instead of performing the electronic version of swearing. My guide dog sleeps more on his pillow, allowing me to be more productive, except of course for those interruptions on Zoom calls when he wants to play with his stuffed animal.

And when I need to “walk that dog,” it is such a simpler activity at home than navigating a professional complex with thousands of people and enhanced security checkpoint procedures. My productivity as a lawyer has improved, not been diminished, by remote working.

I fret, though, that workplaces, including governmental workplaces, may be returning to an anti-teleworking approach. If so, a real opportunity for disability integration will escape our civil society.

Disability Integration Act

Our public health experts tell us that our health declines egregiously or improves notably based on factors not even related to whether we run more at the fitness center or comply with our medication list.

Our largest global minority population particularly knows the impact of housing on personal health status and independent living. Neighborhoods in which policymakers and businesses have not invested result arguably in global cost to all of us in the form of unsafe streets and additional burdens on the health care system.

For example, many Baltimoreans live in abject poverty. People with disabilities, as a minority in Maryland, particularly experience these disparities as well. Intersectionality with other minority groups, who are known to have health disparities, confound poor health status.

The data shows that keeping people in their homes by providing them services is a win-win. The home could serve as a hub for health-related services helping to lessen disparities. Housing equity, however, remains elusive to many people with severe disabilities.

Moreover, insurance programs or policies still rely too much on long-term care facilities or other forms of institutional care. Home care and other home-based or community-based supports and services are available but still prove too much of a financial burden; our policies fail to make them the norm and not the exception.

All of this makes it imperative for Congress to consider and then pass the Disability Integration Act.

The proposed legislation promotes the community living promise inherent in civil rights. It would require that state and local governments and insurers that pay for institutional care for people with disabilities offer these individuals long-term care services in their homes or communities. It also would prevent discriminatory practices, such as restrictive eligibility criteria and caps on cost.

If Congress cannot achieve progress on this bill, the Maryland General Assembly should pass a state-based version of this important legislation. Such measures would greatly mitigate some of the disparities faced by the disabled in our state.

Now that many of us are now living and working from home, the concept of “home” has expanded. Why shouldn’t the home be used as a tool for equity in employment and in turn a stabilizing factor in improved health status?

We all deserve a safe place to rest our head, check our work email, and, in my case, play tug of war with my service animal. My hope is that this can be a reality for more disabled workers in the future.

Gary C. Norman is chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.