How Fair Housing Helps People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Live Independently

By Megan Brooks and Aastha Uprety
March 25, 2020

Historically, people with intellectual or development disabilities (I/DD) were institutionalized and segregated from society. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal civil rights law that “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all area of public life.” In the 1999 case Olmstead v. L.C., the U.S. Supreme Court found that “unjustified segregation of people with disabilities constitutes discrimination under title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” In addition, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing against people with disabilities. However, discrimination persists, and may prevent people with I/DD from securing housing in the community. 

Intellectual disabilities refer to disabilities limiting a person’s abilities surrounding intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. Developmental disabilities are disabilities that develop in a person’s youth, before the age of 22, and generally affect a person throughout their life. There is overlap between intellectual and developmental disabilities and some people may have both, but others may have one without the other. 

2017 study conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Urban Institute used matched-pair testing to examine discrimination against people with I/DD and mental illnesses in the rental housing market. The study found that testers with I/DD or mental illnesses were less likely to receive responses to inquiries, less likely to be told an advertised unit was available, and less likely to be invited to tour the unit. Testers with I/DD also reported housing providers encouraging them to look at different units than the ones advertised (which could indicate illegal steering) and denying their reasonable accommodation requests. Such discrimination prevents people with I/DD from locating housing and living independently. 

Along with banning discrimination, the FHA gives people with disabilities the right to request reasonable accommodations and modifications. Reasonable accommodations are changes in rules, policies, or practices that help make it easier for a person with a disability to fully use and enjoy their home. A reasonable modification is a change to the physical structure of a unit to achieve the same goal. People with I/DD may benefit from the ability to submit reasonable accommodation requests. One example of a reasonable accommodation is asking for a reminder to pay rent a few days in advance of the due date, which may help individuals with memory or organizational difficulties. Another example of a reasonable accommodation could be keeping an assistance animal or emotional support animal in the home, such as a cat that helps a person soothe the symptoms of their disability.  

The FHA applies to many entities beyond just housing providers, a wide domain that helps protect the right of people with I/DD to live independently. For example, in late 2018, the ERC helped RCM of Washington, a nonprofit organization that provides services to individuals with I/DD, submit a reasonable accommodation request to the D.C. government. RCM serves as the lessee for a number of residences in D.C., but their homes serve as the primary residences for local D.C. residents with I/DD. Because the residences were leased under RCM, the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) determined that they were commercial properties and thus would not provide trash collection services to these properties. RCM was forced to pay thousands of dollars per month for a commercial sanitation service instead. The reasonable accommodation request asked DPW to serve these residences regardless, since they were the primary homes of people with I/DDIn this instance, the DPW was subject to the FHA, despite not being a housing provider, real estate agent, or other entity typically associated with providing housing. The agency granted RCM’s reasonable accommodation request, which helped the nonprofit run its community homes more smoothly in the District. You can read more about this case study in this blog about how the far-reaching scope of the FHA is important for people with I/DD. 

In addition to discrimination, people with I/DD face a number of other barriers to housing, including affordability and lack of supportive services in the community. The Arc, a community-based organization advocating for and serving people with I/DD, has a number of resources available to people with disabilities who are interested in moving into their first home independently, including a tool to build a plan for living independently 

With the help of fair housing, we can ensure equal housing opportunity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 


If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email

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