By Gary C. Norman, a Commissioner of the Maryland Civil Rights Commission
Accessible parking, seating and restrooms at theaters, curb cuts, and an ever-increasing presence of assistance dogs in public venues constitute but a few examples of the outcomes of a “comprehensive declaration of equality”, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, and its corollary statutory schemes enacted in the several states. The majority of people with or without disabilities desire to be integral to the social fabric of their community, to age in place within their homes and to participate in the social life of their neighborhoods. The 2010 survey entitled, The ADA, 20 Years Later, revealed that people with disabilities still constitute the poorest members of our communities, bereft of equal opportunities for living, learning, and earning. Therefore, my concise set of thoughts contained below will provide one strategy to ensure that people with disabilities of any age and older adults who may not self-identify as being disabled have the same access to these fundamental privileges, fostering their inclusion in communities.
In the experience of this attorney and Civil Rights Commissioner with a disability, there is continued need for translation of this law enacted 21 summers ago into practice in a way that maximizes the integration of the largest and poorest minority population in our neighborhoods, people with disabilities. For there to be a genuine translation of the law into daily acceptance and compliance, people with disabilities of any age need to be regularly visible and active within the marketplace, the workplace, and in the schoolhouse. A personal regular experience might clarify this point. Partnered with a guide dog, it is rare that my wife and I observe more than just us and my furry sidekick Pilot at an upscale bistro, spa, or hotel. An approach that this Civil Rights Commissioner believes states should increasingly apply to ensure that more and more of our citizens can be fully integrated or “age in place” is property tax forgiveness to homeowners with disabilities of any age or homeowners with military or first responder related service disabilities.
Even twenty-one years after President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law in a ceremony on the lawn of the White House, people with disabilities are simply not visible within our neighborhoods. They are unlikely to be at a restaurant, unlikely to be participating in a recreational sporting league, and unlikely to be homeowners.
Presuming an absence of discrimination for the moment, one obstacle that is an issue in the full inclusion of people with disabilities of any age is the cost of adaptations or even the mere hassle of acquiring adaptations. Specifically, adaptations to daily life of this population, less wealthy overall, such as retrofitting homes to be accessible, can be cost prohibitive.
States should consider enacting legislation that either provides for new programs or expands existing ones to increase the financial resources of homeowners that have impairments or conditions meeting the definition of disability under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. The countervailing argument is that a meaningful reduction in property taxes would devastate governmental services. However, what public policy officials need to consider is whether property taxes, such as they are, can be refocused to increased habitation and commerce by a range of people, including those with disabilities.
The mechanics of and the reason to support this proposal are not obtuse. In the Mid-Atlantic region, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have property tax waivers or property tax forgiveness programs with various levels of reductions of or credits towards property taxes. In these states, and in all states, disabled citizens should be able to apply to the state taxation department, thereafter allocating 100 percent of what they would have paid in property taxes towards home renovations, transportation, or aides that help with daily living or personal commerce and functioning, such as renovating front entrances. As Oregon requires of its related property tax deferral program, proof of homeowner’s insurance and a minimal time for home occupancy would be legitimate conditions for participation in this program.
Impairments or conditions, many of which could rise to the level of a legally defined disability are often correlated to the aging process. The President of the American Association of Retired Persons testified before Congress in 2011 that one out of every five citizens in the United States would be an older adult by 2030. Therefore, an additional reason to formulate innovative programs such as 100 percent property tax forgiveness is the aging of America.