Accessing accessible housing

Seana O’Callaghan

Because MS strikes after adult life has begun, and disabilities are often felt only much later on, many who become disabled from MS are simply unprepared. Suddenly a person may need bathtub railings. A kitchen or garage develops obstacles. Using a scooter requires a ramp. Simultaneously, income might be shrinking or even disappearing. A lot of us do not know how to begin to look for help.

Nobody should have to live in a home that is inaccessible to them, and nobody should have to leave a home if simple structural changes can prevent that loss. There is money for accessibility modifications out there. There are also many people who volunteer their time and skills to help people who become disabled to maintain independent lives.

Call your insurance company

If you are insured, a call to your health insurance company is the first step to take. Your policy may provide for medically necessary structural changes as well as equipment. When calling, have paper and pencil handy to write down your representatives’ names and their answers to your questions. If you feel that the answers are not accurate or complete, ask to speak with a supervisor. Funding modifications to a home may be complex from the insurer’s point of view, so speaking with a manager can be much more useful than speaking with a less knowledgeable customer service rep. If coverage for home modifications is not available under your policy, don’t lose heart.

Call the IRS!

You may be eligible for a tax break. Although the federal tax code is not fun or easy to decipher, it is an important resource. Telephone the IRS. The listing is usually found in the U.S. Government Offices section of your telephone book under Internal Revenue Service. Or contact the IRS on the Web at . Then ask for or download the instructions for Schedule R or Schedule 3, Credit for the Elderly or Disabled. (Try not to pay attention to how that sounds.) Within these instructions is a form for your doctor to fill out. It states that you are disabled and eligible for all associated tax credits and deductions. This statement does not have to be sent to the IRS with your return, but it must be kept with your tax records to prove, in case you are ever audited, that you are eligible for deductions and credits you have taken.

Even if it’s not tax time, ask for a copy of Publication 907, Tax Highlights for the Disabled, as well. Although it’s no page-turner, it contains references to all of the major tax credits and deductions that might be of use to you, including itemized deductions for medically necessary modifications to a home or vehicle and work-related accommodations.

If you need help dealing with these regulations, the IRS itself may be helpful, but surprisingly, they do not have any specialists in disability tax law on staff.

Call the ILC!

Independent Living Centers, or ILCs (or sometimes CILs, meaning Centers for Independent Living), are federally mandated institutions that operate in every state on behalf of people with disabilities. They are the independent living specialists! ILCs avail themselves of federal, state, local, and private funds to provide information, referrals, services, and advocacy for a single purpose: to help individuals with disabilities live in their own homes.

Your local ILC probably offers knowledgeable tax assistance, among other services. They should also know about local sources for funding modifications.

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), the advocacy and training organization serving ILCs nationwide, represents over 700 ILCs and Statewide Independent Living Councils throughout the nation. To contact the NCIL center nearest you, call toll-free at 877-525-3400 or log on to on the Web.

What’s the state of your state?

All 50 states have state housing agencies, authorities, or corporations. These organizations are called different things in different states, and, accordingly, each provides its own unique set of services. Not all states have programs that provide assistance for access modifications to single family homes–but some do. It’s worth taking a look. Incidentally, in some states more than one agency may be involved, so check out everything that might apply Call the National Council of State Housing Agencies at 202-624-7710 or go to the list of links to state housing agencies at on the Web.

Do you have a federal case?

The federal government also provides housing assistance through its central housing agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Low-interest loans for accessibility modifications are available from HUD. A wealth of useful information, including links to accessible apartment rental services, can be found on the Web at or by calling HUD’s housing referral service hotline at 888-466-3487.

HUD also provides the Section 811 Supportive Housing Program, through the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) and the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME). These funds are granted to community organizations and can be used for a number of housing purposes, including home accessibility modifications. Do note, however, that individuals cannot apply for these funds directly However, housing organizations in your area can make use of them, and HUD will put you in touch with these organizations.

Farm aid?

Surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, also has programs to help low-income homeowners modify their houses. USDA’s Rural Development Section 504 Loans and Grants can be used for accessibility modifications and home repairs. Grants are available for homeowners age 62 and over who qualify, and loans at 1% interest are available to those under 62 years old. Information is available at or 202-720-4323.

All-American volunteers

Not-for-profit organizations can be fantastic resources for low-income people with disabilities. Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April, for example, performs free home modifications and building rehabilitation for low income homeowners in need, coordinating the efforts of volunteers and skilled craftsmen. Theft mission is to ensure “that low-income homeowners, particularly those who are elderly or disabled and families with children, live in warmth, safety, and independence.” The organization has chapters all over the United States, which can be found on their Web site at or by calling 800-4REHAB9.

Habitat for Humanity is another not-for-profit organization that builds affordable housing and assists with repairs. Like Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity is made up of member chapters all over the country that offer services tailored to individual communities. Most chapters provide accessibility modifications assistance. Look in your yellow pages, log on to their website, , or call 800-HABITAT for your local affiliate.

Even if your income is too high to qualify for help from voluntary sources, your design and construction costs for access ramps can still be dramatically reduced. Bob Zimmerman, a.k.a. “The Ramp Guy,” is an independent-living counselor at the Minnesota Division of Rehabilitation Services. With help from the Metropolitan CIL and the Minnesota Chapter of the National MS Society, he founded the Ramp Project, which created a modular design for ramps or steps that can be built either on or off your site. Their comprehensive how-to manual can be printed free from their Web site at or purchased for $15 from the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (phone: 651-646-8342; or write: 1600 University Ave. West, Suite 16, St. Paul, MN 55104-3825).

Fannie Mae might help too. This venerable public/private home finance agency has a program called Home Choice, tailored to ease the process of obtaining a mortgage for people with disabilities. Go to on the Web or call: 800-732-6643.

A home in your reach

Regaining independence lost through disability may take creativity, perseverance, or accepting help from benevolent strangers; but it may still be within reach, and at an affordable price. So don’t panic. Get on the phone, surf the Web, brainstorm with relatives and friends. And don’t forget to call the National MS Society. The chapter nearest you may have good information about local community, faith-based, or government agencies. Ask for the booklet “At Home with MS”, which contains practical information about do-it-yourself modifications and resources.

Seana O’Callaghan is a freelance writer who lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Multiple Sclerosis Society

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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