Accommodating And Communicating With Deaf Tenants

As a property manager, making every tenant feel welcome is at the heart of your job. How do you fulfill this responsibility, though, when you can’t easily communicate with your tenants? As may happen when working with non-English speaking tenants, property managers may also encounter communication challenges when working with d/Deaf tenants. This is especially true in major cities like Houston, which have vibrant d/Deaf communities, including an all-d/Deaf Baptist church, socials, performances, and more.

Increased reliance on digital communication has undoubtedly simplified many things for both d/Deaf individuals and those who work with them, but not every interaction can or should happen in writing. What’s more, these tenants may require a few key modifications to make their residences’ accessible. As the property manager, it’s your job to help them meet those access needs. By developing a few access-centered skills and strategies, you can ensure that d/Deaf tenants are met with the same welcome as your hearing residents.

A Note On Terminology

If you want to be welcoming towards d/Deaf tenants, one of the most basic things you can do is develop a degree of cultural literacy around hearing and communication. Individuals who identify as Deaf view themselves as part of a linguistic minority. That means that when you’re discussing communication needs, the primary concern is one of translation, rather than access, just as it would be when working with non-English speaking tenants. Those who use the term deaf with a lowercase “d,” however, refer primarily to the audiological condition. In writing, the use of “d/Deaf” is a common way of signaling the distinction between those who consider themselves to be culturally Deaf, and other hard of hearing (HOH) groups.

Access Beyond Ramps

When it comes to accessibility, many property owners and managers limit their efforts to installing ramps and ensuring that there are designated parking spots for those holding accessible parking placards, and there’s no denying these things are important. However, it’s also important to remember that not all disabled people use wheelchairs and access needs can vary widely among individuals. A big part of welcoming all tenants is recognizing their different access needs.

For d/Deaf tenants, one of the most common and important accommodations include special fire alarms, typically ones that use a combination of strobe lights and vibration. These are critical to tenant safety, but as they aren’t standard to your properties, it’s typically best to ask tenants what type of alarm is best for them. As you become more familiar with these devices, you may also discover that alternative alarms benefit other tenants, such as elderly residents with some hearing loss.

In addition to special fire alarms, some d/Deaf tenants will require additional wiring for notification and communication systems. These are all relatively minor changes that are considered reasonable accommodations, and as a property manager you need to respond to them promptly.

In some cases, the landlord isn’t required to actually make changes to the property, but they are legally obligated to allow the tenant to do so. For example, you may not be required to install a doorbell with strobe lights, but you cannot prevent a d/Deaf tenant from doing so.

Restoration Rules

Under the ADA, tenants may be required to restore the property to its pre-modification state upon moveout. This applies only to changes the tenant made independently, such as the installation of special doorbells or other communication equipment. This generally isn’t an issue, as tenants typically want to take this equipment with them for use in their next residence, but it is something you should properly address in any lease documents.

Be Alert To Hearing Alert Dogs

Did you know that some d/Deaf individuals use hearing alert dogs? Though not the most familiar type of service dog, these dogs perform important jobs for their owners, including alerting to things like fire alarms, crying children, and even police sirens while on the road. Like all other service animals, the ADA requires that you allow these dogs to reside with their owners, even if you have a “no pet” policy.

Communication Considerations

It’s 2020, which means that you probably do most of your property-related communication via email, but most urgent communications – for example, when a pipe bursts in the middle of the night – still happen over the phone. How will you accommodate d/Deaf tenants under those circumstances? Does your emergency maintenance line know how to handle relay calls? Relay calls are a common tool used by d/Deaf individuals, which allows them to type messages to a central receiver, who then acts as a “middleman” between the hearing and d/Deaf callers.

It’s your job to ensure that your maintenance line, as well as any other important points of communication, are accessible to all your tenants, and to prepare those services in advance. The onus should not be on a tenant dealing with a housing issue to deal with communication problems while also trying to get repairs made.

In-Person Communication

ASL is as complex as any spoken language. It has its own grammar and regional variations. Indeed, it’s so different from spoken English, or other spoken language, that many experts suggest that it’s impossible to become fluent in ASL at a native level without early childhood exposure. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to learn some basic signs, just as you might learn some basic greetings in Spanish or Arabic to speak to those clients. Learn how to exchange greetings and other pleasantries, a few basic housing-related terms, and don’t worry about defaulting to writing as needed. Unlike with other individuals who exclusively speak a foreign language, there are only a few circumstances under which you would actually need an interpreter when working with d/Deaf tenants, since so much communication happens in writing.

There are a lot of great, free resources for learning basic ASL. Some favorites include SignSchool and Sign Language 101. The Office of Housing and Urban Development has also created a series of useful ASL videos covering housing topics. Most importantly, don’t think about learning ASL greetings and other phrases as an act of accommodation. While it may be tool to help you do your job, it’s also a simple act of human connection, and one that may serve you well in all kinds of other settings, from coffee shops to stores and places of worship. ASL users are everywhere.

Greetings From Green Residential

At Green Residential, we pride ourselves on being a family-run business and on treating all of our clients and tenants like family – and that means prioritizing inclusion. Contact Green Residential today to learn more about our services and how we can help make your property a welcoming home for everyone. After all, when you put relationships first in property management, everyone wins.