On a sunny afternoon on the first day of spring, Deepa Goraya opened her laptop and sat at her dining-room table in the bright D.C. condominium she has never seen.
“I’m used to the voice now,” she said. “I don’t know what people did without it.”
Goraya served as a tester for a nonprofit group’s report, released Wednesday, that outlined obstacles standing between the disabled and accessible housing. The study outlined what Goraya has long known: Not every website interacts well with such screen-readers — a hindrance for blind people searching for a place to call home.
The study by the Equal Rights Center, a District-based fair-housing group, found disabled people in the D.C. region face significant physical and digital hurdles when searching for places to live, despite federal regulations passed decades ago to protect their rights.
The nonprofit group conducted in-person and online tests to document whether disabled people faced barriers in searching for housing at apartments and homes built between 2011 and 2018.
For the in-person tests, one non-disabled person and another using a wheelchair or scooter visited properties, saying they were in search of housing for another disabled person who was not present.
The advocates said they found possible violations of the Fair Housing Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act at 16 of 23 properties they visited, including obstructions such as marketing signs or post-office boxes on accessible routes, insufficient clearance in kitchens and bathrooms, and only high-top seating options in common areas.
In five tests, leasing agents showed testers what they called “ADA units” — a name the report described as “an inaccurate colloquial term that when used, identifies units that have already been modified for increased accessibility.” The report said the practice raises concerns about steering disabled people toward different units, a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
In online tests, technology problems at 80 percent of the properties’ desktop websites and 72 percent of their mobile websites showed different or undetectable information to testers who were and were not disabled, the report said. The most common problems were with screen-readers for the blind that could not perceive virtual tours or access online applications, according to the report.
“Website accessibility is an emerging issue that has frustrated housing providers and people with disabilities alike due to the lack of guidance from federal, state and local governments,” the report said. “As businesses struggle to determine how best to make their websites accessible, people with disabilities are left to face new barriers.”
Goraya said she encounters problems with websites every day — even with something as simple as reading a restaurant menu. The same difficulty stands in the way of finding accessible housing, she said.
“People don’t know about accessibility,” she said. “They don’t think about the coding of their websites.”
The report did not include the addresses of the properties that were tested or a breakdown of how many were in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
One woman who helped to conduct in-person tests and spoke on the condition of anonymity so she could conduct future investigations said leasing agents offered disabled people limited options, sometimes assuming they could not rent units on upper floors.
The woman, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal injury, said other buildings — even in higher-end units in downtown Washington — simply are not accessible. She recalled one memorable trip to a bathroom during an in-person test.
“I literally almost couldn’t get out because it didn’t meet the standards,” she said. “If the door closes behind you, you have to have the space to get out.”
Katherine Pearson, the Equal Rights Center’s director of accessibility rights, said she hoped the report showed “what has really happened” since the Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act tried to ensure equal access for the disabled in the early 1990s.
“Design standards have existed for 20 years,” she said. “How long are we going to allow businesses to say, ‘Oh, sorry, oopsies’?”
Lainey Feingold, a California-based disability rights lawyer who has negotiated accessibility agreements with Walmart and Wells Fargo, among other companies, said an awareness that disabled people must have appropriate access to the Internet is growing. Pointing out that some people cannot hold a mouse, she said websites must be accessible to “the whole range of humanity.”
“You cannot pick and choose who is going to get information,” she said. “If you put information on a website, it’s got to be available to everybody.”