By David H. Kirkwood
The National Association of the Deaf, joined by more than 75 other national and state advocacy groups for people with hearing loss, wrote last week to Shaun Donovan , secretary of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), urging that “quotas” not be imposed on the number of people with hearing loss who can live in federally subsidized housing projects.
Their April 22 letter addressed an ongoing controversy over Apache ASL Trails, a subsidized senior housing complex in Tempe, AZ. Designed by a deaf architect, it features amenities for deaf residents, such as phones and doorbells that flash when they ring and common areas equipped with hearing loops.
According to an article in the April 29 New York Times, the project, which was built with HUD money allocated to it by the Arizona Department of Housing, gives preference to applicants who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Currently, more than 90% of the 75 units are occupied by people with hearing loss.
Adding to the accessibility for deaf residents is that the manager of the complex is deaf and uses American Sigh Language (ASL). Also, an organization that offers ASL interpretation is based in the complex and workshops offer speech and simultaneous sign-language translation are held weekly in the lobby.
HUD RAISES A RED FLAG
Last year, HUD began expressing concerns that the policies at Apache ASL Trails may discriminate against people who don’t have a hearing impairment. John Trasviña, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a statement that “federal law prohibits facilities that receive HUD funds from providing separate or different housing for one group of individuals with disabilities because this practice denies or limits access to housing for other individuals based on the types of disabilities they have.”
In June 2012, HUD drafted a compliance agreement that would in the future limit units set aside for deaf residents or residents in wheelchairs to about 20 of the 75 (though, it said, no one currently living there would be forced out to reach that figure).
However, neither the developer of the project nor Arizona state officials accepted those terms. According to the Times, HUD threatened to withhold funds from the state if it did not comply with its terms, but Michael Trailor, the state housing director, stood fast, saying he had to “stand up for the rights of disabled people.”
An announcement on the Apache ASL Trails web site, said that HUD’s finding “undermines Apache ASL Trails’ ability to fulfill its purpose of providing quality supportive housing to the deaf, hard of hearing and deaf blind individuals who most benefit from the state-of-the-art amenities and services provided at Apache. This callous and uninformed ruling hurts not only the many current residents who call Apache ASL Trails home, but the many potential future residents who can only dream of a home like Apache. Adding insult to injury, HUD is even insisting that Apache eliminate ‘ASL’ from its name to ensure that all references to deaf culture at the property are eradicated.”
Thus far, HUD has not brought a formal complaint against Apache ASL Trails, and in the face of growing support for the project the department’s position seems to be softening. A spokesman for HUD told the Times reporter that the agency was giving the state and the developer time to demonstrate that the deaf population’s housing needs justified the use of federal money for the project.
NAD COMES ON STRONG
In a fiery letter to HUD Secretary Donovan, Christopher Wagner, president of NAD, and Howard Rosenblum, the CEO, made it abundantly clear that they see a huge need for housing that is accessible for the deaf. They wrote, “We ask that you take note of the unique housing needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who require public or subsidized housing, and recognize both their legal rights and the practical reality that they face.”
They added, “Your agency is forcing deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to only live according to an ideological vision of forced integration. The tragic irony is that such an ideology has punished deaf and hard of hearing individuals seeking a higher quality of life and a safer place to live and has actually resulted in the forced isolation of individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing.”
In concluding their nearly 1400-word missive, Wagner and Rosenblum said, “We urge you to immediately halt advancing arbitrary maximum quotas and to cease denying preferences to individuals who need the accessibility features of a unit and wish to live in that unit.”