Housing First

People with Physical Disabilities

The Facts on Disability The Facts on Disability

Other Resources Other Resources

May 2001 demonstration

A May 2001 demonstration at the White House by disability rights activists from the group ADAPT.
Photo: ADAPT

When it comes to finding secure, affordable housing, Americans with physical disabilities face a frustrating array of barriers -- financial and bureaucratic ones as well as barriers of concrete, brick and wood.

Poverty is perhaps the most significant barrier. A recent Census Bureau survey found that 28 percent of 25-to-64-year-olds with severe physical disabilities fall far below the federal poverty line -- nearly four times the rate for people of the same age who are not disabled. (The survey identified people as severely disabled if they were unable to perform certain tasks or daily living activities without help.)

The situation is particularly difficult for physically disabled people who depend upon the government's basic welfare program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI). In December 2000, the average monthly payment for SSI was $369 a month -- and there was nowhere in the country where that would pay the rent for an efficiency or one-bedroom apartment, according to Priced Out in 2000: The Crisis Continues, a study compiled by a coalition of disability groups.

"You look at the problem at the bottom line and it's simple: It's poverty, extreme poverty," says Anne O'Hara, an analyst and co-author the report.

Many Americans with disabilities are eligible for public housing. Government support for housing comes through an array of programs, but the largest is a voucher system that allows participants to find rentals on the private market. Households that receive a "Section 8" voucher pay a portion of their monthly income (usually 30 percent) for rent. The voucher pays a subsidy directly to the landlord to make up the difference (based on calculations of cost for modestly priced housing in the area).

Overall, the program has helped more than 1.4 million people find affordable housing since its inception in 1974. But disability advocates say the Public Housing Authorities that administer the program show little interest in steering assistance to people with disabilities.

A study by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force found that 90 percent of Public Housing Authorities did not apply for Section 8 vouchers for people with disabilities. In many areas, when people with disabilities do apply for the vouchers, they languish on waiting lists for years. "We have over 3 million adults on SSI with disabilities under age 62, and fewer than 500,000 get subsidized housing," says O'Hara. "We haven't made it a priority in housing policy."

For these individuals, finding a home can be doubly difficult because it must be within reach physically as well as financially. While the United States has made significant progress in making public buildings more accessible to the physically disabled -- with structural changes including ramps, elevators and widened doorways -- housing is another matter. "The housing stock that is most affordable is probably the least accessible," says Glenn Fujiura, a professor of disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's the places in the older neighborhoods in cities."

Even middle-class people with disabilities face the problem. "We have people with condos who try to put up a ramp, and they're getting all kinds of threats from the condo association," says Nancy Starnes, an official with the National Organization on Disability.

Disability groups have been working with architects and builders to educate them on the needs of people with disabilities. A movement is slowly gaining ground to establish at least minimal accessibility standards for newly-built residential homes of all kinds. Several cities, counties, and the state of Vermont have established "visitability" standards intended to make sure there is at least one entrance to homes that is wheelchair accessible and one bathroom that can accommodate a person with a disability.

Starnes says visitability standards not only make it easier for people with physical disabilities to be part of their neighborhood, but can allow people without pre-existing disabilities to stay in their homes as they age. "People don't want to lose their homes just because they can't walk down a flight of stairs anymore," says Starnes. "But we hear about this all the time -- people being forced to move because they can't afford to fix up their house."

By Reed Karaim

The Facts on Disability

Nearly one out of every five Americans -- 53 million people -- reported a disability of some kind in 1997, according to a Census Bureau survey from that year that's considered the best recent tally. Nearly 33 million reported they had a severe disability.

The disabled population has grown dramatically in recent decades. The growth is due in large part to an expanding definition of what constitutes a disability but also to the aging of the overall population, and the increasing prevalence of certain lifestyle-related diseases.

The Census Bureau defines a person with a disability as someone who has difficulty in performing functional tasks or daily living activities. Today, this includes growing numbers of children diagnosed with various learning disabilities, senior citizens facing physical limitations common to extreme old age, and diabetics, a population that's grown with the nationwide rise in obesity.

"The government definition takes in a lot of people who don't fit into the common idea: people in a wheelchair who've been there for most of their lives," says Glenn Fujiura, a professor of disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Fujiura estimates the number of people with severe physical disabilities at about nine to 10 percent of the total disability figure.

The Census Bureau survey found 2.2 million people using a wheelchair, and another 6.4 million using a cane, crutch or walker. As a measure of difficulty accomplishing the acts of daily living, the survey found about 18 million people over the age of 15 had difficulty lifting and carrying a 10-pound bag or grasping small objects; and 25 million had difficulty climbing a flight of 10 stairs.

In 1997, 9.7 million Americans age 16 to 64 had a disability that prevented them from working. Another 7.2 million were limited in the amount or kind of work they could do.

Other Resources:

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a coalition of 100 disability groups, has extensive research on housing, including the report Priced out in 2000: The Crisis Continues.

The National Council on Disabilty's Web site offers information including the report Reconstructing Fair Housing, which examines the Department of Housing and Urban Development's track record in enforcing fair housing laws.

The National Organization on Disability works to make sure people with disabilities can fully participate in their communities.

The Web site of Adapt, an organization dedicated to promoting independent living and in-home care for people with disabilities, offers educational materials, including photo essays on its advocacy activities nationwide.

The Technical Assistance Collaborative is a national organization that works on behalf of people with disabilities or other special needs by providing technical expertise in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, human services and affordable housing.

blue house
View enlargement.

"The picture shows a typical neighborhood scene: a row of small, simple houses, one powder blue, one a darker blue and one a pale pink -- typical, except the side doors of all these houses have wooden ramps..."
-- Mike Ervin

More See a clip from a video on "building better neighborhoods," from Concrete Change, an Atlanta-based disability rights group, has led the crusade to make homes "visitable" by adding ramps, widening doorways and making other renovations.

More And read an essay on accessible housing by writer and activist Mike Ervin.
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