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My Co-op Won’t Accommodate My Hearing Disability. How Do I Force the Issue?

BusinessMy Co-op Won’t Accommodate My Hearing Disability. How Do I Force the Issue?

Q: I live in a co-op in Midtown East, and I cannot use the intercom in my apartment due to profound deafness. The building hasn’t really done anything to accommodate me. In an emergency, the phone is useless. (The intercoms also don’t function especially well for my hearing neighbors.) I would like to suggest an intercom phone that has speakerphone ability, which may allow me to hear some of what’s being said. What is the law regarding a workable intercom phone for a person with disabilities?

A: Your co-op must accommodate your disability, and should provide you with an intercom that allows you to fully understand your callers.

Intercoms are legally required in most New York City apartment buildings, including co-ops. The buildings also have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities under the federal Fair Housing Act and state and city human rights laws.

An intercom that is functional for you would “almost certainly be considered reasonable under the law,” said Ali Frick, who practices discrimination law in Manhattan.

City law requires the co-op to pay for reasonable accommodations. You can make a request in writing to the building’s management for an intercom that will accommodate your deafness. State what you are asking for, and why you require a different intercom — though you are not required to go into great detail about your disability, said Maureen Belluscio, managing attorney in the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Just explain how different equipment will allow you to use the building’s services, and include information about any previous intercom requests you’ve made.

If the building fails to act, you will have a “very solid” discrimination case, in which a court would likely order the modification and even award you monetary damages to compensate for things like emotional distress, said Andrew Lieb, who practices real estate and discrimination law in New York.

The co-op’s failure to address your request by engaging with you to find an acceptable solution (in what is called the “cooperative dialogue,”) is a separate cause for legal action under city law, according to Mr. Lieb. “A visual interface is what this reader should demand and receive, not just a speakerphone,” he said. “The reader has a right to understand the entire conversation rather than being relegated to a second-class citizen status within the co-op.”

You can spread the word to your hearing neighbors that their units should have functional intercoms as well.

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