The New York City Human Rights Commission (HRC) has just published a new document informing landlords, employers and places of public accommodation about disability discrimination – and how to avoid it. The 146 page document, called a “legal guidance” is the most extensive in the Commission’s history. At an event this past Tuesday, Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis explained why.
While New York City’s Human Rights Law covers many kinds of discrimination, “disability related discrimination is consistently the number one type of discrimination that is reported to us,” Commissioner Malalis said. “In fact, right now, the Commission is working on more than 1,000 reports of discrimination based on disability.”
HRC’s new legal guidance offers common examples of discrimination against people with disabilities that violate New York City’s Human Rights Law – one of the strongest such laws in the nation. These include a landlord who requires tenants with service animals to pay an additional security deposit, an employer with a “maximum leave policy” who refuses to engage in a cooperative dialogue with an employee who may need more time due to a disability, or a restaurant owner who makes a deaf customer wait until other customers have been served first because they believe communicating with them will take longer.
HRC’s new guidance also provides examples of more subtle forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities based on stereotypes or assumptions about their abilities or circumstances. In addition, it offers detailed “best practices” for how employers, landlords, and business owners can avoid violating the law, and explains the right of a person with a disability to a “reasonable accommodation” to allow them to participate fully in work, school, or any other aspect of community life.
ICS Chief Operating Officer Regina Estela also serves as an HRC Commissioner. She said, “Too often people with disabilities are put in the difficult position of having to file complaints to enforce anti-discrimination laws. The Commission is working hard to change that equation by offering concrete, practical guidance on how to proactively include people with disabilities. The guidance is both an excellent educational resource for employers, landlords, businesses and other public accommodations, and an important reminder of New York City’s broad legal protections for people with disabilities.”
Former ICS staffer Anna Martinez emceed Tuesday’s event, which was held to publicize HRC’s new guidance. For the past year Anna has served as Director of Project Equal Access, HRC’s disability rights unit, which, Commissioner Malalis noted, is “one of the most important programs at the agency.
Commissioner Malalis went on to say, “Anna’s team, to her credit, is often able to move in and negotiate things that people with disabilities need without even having to file a complaint. In 2017 alone, the team negotiated more than 200 pre-complaint modifications on behalf of people with disabilities, including installing ramps, renovating bathrooms and other areas to make them accessible, installing electronic doors, grab bars, and handrails, and training staff on how to accommodate people with disabilities.”
Commissioner Calise Shares His Own Story
Victor Calise, Commissioner for the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, attended Tuesday’s event as well, and joined Commissioner Malalis in emphasizing the strong collaboration between their two agencies. As someone with a spinal cord injury who uses a wheelchair, he also had a personal experience to share.
“About 15 years ago I was looking for an apartment,” Commissioner Calise said. “I had my board package together. I had all my financial documents in order. I went and the board scheduled an interview, and about a week later they told me they were not accepting my application.
“Now, I had sold my other apartment and needed to move. I felt that I was being discriminated against and I didn’t know where to turn. Fortunately, at that time I worked for an organization where colleagues told me, ‘You need to turn around and go to the Commission on Human Rights.’
“So, I did and, sure enough, the Commission was there to advocate for me, to write the necessary letters, and to tell the board, ‘No, you need to accept this person with a disability because if you don’t there’s going to be a big problem.’
“I’ve been living in that apartment ever since. So, the Commission gave me the right to live where I want to live and be accepted as part of my community. I urge everyone to take advantage of what they have to offer.
“You know what I love about today?” Commissioner Calise added. “That we’re talking about people with disabilities. And when we’re having that conversation, we’re changing the way people think and accept people with disabilities in society.”
That’s exactly the goal of the HRC’s new legal guidance as well.
For those of us who don’t have time to read the whole 146 page guidance, the HRC has published a one-page fact sheet. The longer document is an excellent resource for employers, landlords and people responsible for making any public accommodation accessible, and for anyone with a disability who wants to better understand their rights under law.