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Co-op and Condo Boards Must Accommodate Hearing-Impaired Residents

New York City

Disabilities, reasonable accommodations, co-op and condo boards, monetary damages.
May 28, 2024

Co-op and condo boards are required by federal, state and local laws to make reasonable accommodations for residents suffering from a long list of disabilities. Failure to do so can result in potentially crippling financial penalties. One disability that draws little attention recently caused a problem: hearing impairment.

It happened at a Manhattan co-op, where a shareholder suffering from "profound deafness" is unable to understand voices coming over the apartment's intercom. This shareholder has a question: "What is the law regarding a workable intercom phone for a person with disabilities?"

Intercoms are legally required in most New York City apartment buildings, replies the Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times. Co-op and condo boards and landlords in rental buildings have the added obligation of making 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 a hearing-impaired person would “almost certainly be considered reasonable under the law,” says Ali Frick, who practices discrimination law at Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick in Manhattan.

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, says 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 board fails to act, the shareholder will have a “very solid” discrimination case, in which a court would likely order the modification and even award monetary damages to compensate for things such things as emotional distress, says Andrew Lieb, who practices real estate and discrimination law at his eponymous firm, Lieb at Law.

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

In other words, it's time for this co-op board to get busy.

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