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What Kind of Disability Is Protected Against Discrimination?

Understand the Federal Law Definition of Disability


If you have a disability or you're rooming with someone who does, you're entitled to some important protections against discrimination -- as long as the disability fits the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) definition.

What the FHA considers to be a disability may be broader -- or narrower -- than you think. In a nutshell, here are the characteristics of a qualifying disability:

  • 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 one's self, learning, and working.

  • The disability doesn't have to be obvious. People don't need to be able to know you have a disability just from seeing you or even from spending time with you. For example, you might be an asthmatic who, thanks to medication, doesn't have noticeable difficulty breathing when meeting with a leasing agent.

  • Your disability doesn't have to require you to use any assistive device. If you have a mobility impairment, it can qualify as a disability under the FHA even though you don't use a wheelchair, cane, or any other assistive device. Similarly, if you have a hearing impairment, you don't have to use a hearing aid to be eligible for the FHA's protections.

  • Your disability doesn't have to be physical. The FHA protects prospects and tenants who have "physical or mental impairments." Chronic fatigue syndrome, a learning disability, and mental illness all fit the FHA's definition.

  • Addictions are disabilities, too. People who have a drug or alcohol addiction qualify as having a disability.

Even if you or your roommate fits the definition of disability, you're not entitled to any of 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 just on a hunch -- he must be able to point to specific past behavior that would justify either rejecting your rental application or evicting you.

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