Six Ways to Advocate for Clients with Disabilities

Ada Ciuca| October 22, 2021

When Stephen Beard entered the real estate industry nearly 18 years ago, his mission was clear. “I got into real estate to be the agent for people with disabilities and their families,” he says. At the time, Beard, who has cerebral palsy and requires a cane for mobility, experienced the market and thought there was much room for improvement. “My agents were great, but they were not sensitive to my unique physical circumstances. My cerebral palsy affects how I view living spaces and what I look for in them,” shares Beard. 

Now running his own small team and serving as a productivity coach within his market center, Beard has created a safe space for disabled clients that extends beyond his California Bay Area business: He’s created a network of knowledgeable professionals that are ready to support clients with different types of disabilities. And, he is using his “Accessible Housing Matters” podcast to raise awareness within the community on a multitude of accessible housing issues. 

Agent education is also at the forefront of Bernardo Vallarino’s vision for the future of accessibility. The 20-year industry veteran, dual-career agent, and founder of KW-Signs has spent the past five years researching, creating, and implementing ways to make the real estate experience equitable for deaf and hard of hearing clients. While Vallarino is not deaf or hard of hearing, his previous experience as a magnet school-for-the-deaf teacher made him consider accessibility in ways he’d never had to think about. “When I was there, I realized the district did a poor job in being equitable to the students,” he shares. And later, as he was staffing a booth during a real estate event and encountered a visitor trying to communicate with him in sign language, the sentiments returned. “That sparked some questions regarding how deaf people are able to buy and sell houses,” he says. “There is a massive black hole in the industry for catering to disabled clients.” 

Within their respective markets and beyond, Beard and Vallarino are leveraging training, education, and networking to create a space that is more equitable for all clients – no matter the type of physical or nonphysical disability they may have. Here, both advocates share actionable tips that can help your business become more aware of the challenges the disabled community faces during the homebuying and selling process.

The Long Road to Accessibility  

Like many other industries, real estate struggles to be inclusive to the disabled community at its most basic level: In the online materials that are essential to the everyday job of Realtors. “Most MLS’s and other services do a very poor job of describing the physical accessibility of properties,” Beard shares. “I think that really inhibits the ability of agents to really serve this group of clients.” So, in the event that a property does have a shower-bench option or appropriate countertop heights, without a standardized space to showcase these features as part of a listing, both the buyer and seller can be at a disadvantage.

Another challenge deeply rooted in the fabric of the industry itself is how communities have been and continue to be approached by developers. “Generally speaking, homes and communities are not being built in an accessible manner on a broader scale,” Beard states. For example, within a living community, a home may be built without an entrance threshold and with an access-friendly single story design. At the same time, every surrounding home within that community is a two-story unit with a door threshold with a vertical height past the disability-friendly 1/4 inch. “A person will go and buy a home that they can use with their disability, but they can’t go visit their next-door neighbor. We’re not thinking about communities the right way.”

Six Ways to Adjust Your Services 

Creating an equitable path to homeownership for disabled clients should be a mission every agent considers adding to their list of goals. In the process, plenty of changes may seem out of reach, but there are individual actions that you, your team members, and your staff can take in order to bring the industry one step closer to serving disabled communities in a way that ensures their needs are met. What practice will you be adding to your business immediately? 

Reframe your understanding of communication methods.

“I believe the biggest barrier is the inability of businesses to understand that when it comes down to communication, they have to provide interpreters,” says Vallarino, whose work with KW-Signs includes the goal of training successful deaf, hard of hearing, and ASL proficient individuals in order to provide an egalitarian service for the deaf and hard of hearing community. It is also important to remember that not just any kind of interpreter will do – the need is for someone who understands real estate terminology and is able to properly convey the context to clients. And, on video materials, closed captioning is a must. “These small things will slowly educate the system and create a huge change for what’s coming,” he says.

Assess the situation and ask the right questions.

Every time you start working with a new client, the process starts from scratch. Even if you have previously served someone with their particular disability, it is important to go into the partnership without any preconceived notion. “Everyone has unique circumstances,” says Beard. “No two people who use a wheelchair will use it the same way, for example.” Using the example of wheelchair users, some of the questions Beard may ask in an initial client assessment include:

  • What kind of wheelchair do you utilize and what are its measurements?
  • How do you transfer to and from your wheelchair?
  • Do you have ways of getting around outside of the chair independently of other people? 
  • How do you want to use your space?

This initial assessment will give an understanding of the specific needs, preferences, and lifestyle considerations that a client requires. As an example, some wheelchair users may be using their upper bodies to move outside of the chair. These clients may request carpeting so they are easily able to maneuver around the floor. Others may only stay in their chair unless being transferred to a bed or bathroom facilities. In that case, they may prefer hardwood floors.

Have a basic understanding of ASL.

Despite what some may believe, American Sign Language is not the English language translated into signs. In fact, its grammatical structure is more closely related to French, as ASL has its origin in French Sign Language. “Expecting somebody that speaks a different language to just read English, or even read closed captioning in English, at the speed that we provide it at is not equitable,” Vallarino says. One step agents can take is to familiarize themselves with basic ASL terminology in order to help their clients feel more comfortable communicating. KW-Signs offers free introductory deaf culture classes including basic business-related ASL terms to help agents as a first step.

Be mindful of scheduling.

Some disabilities are less visible than others. Beard serves clients that have fatigue, or other disabilities that make them tired, so he always makes sure to take a step back and assess timelines for finding these clients a home. “We want to operate at their speed, not at our speed,” he shares. This looks like understanding your client’s ability to go and look at homes. How many homes are they able to view in one afternoon? Are there any transportation limitations when it comes to them reaching their destination? Having an open conversation with your clients will ensure the process is comfortable for them. Beard shares that before offering a home as a potential option, his team will preview it themselves, or include the client in a video chat instead of having them arrive in person. “We will not take them out there until we’ve assessed that it fits their needs.”

Connect with other agents who share your mission.

Vallarino and Beard both list connection as a top priority on the path to equity for disabled clients. Through his work with KW-Signs, Vallarino has created an ASL-accessible network spanning 22 states, and 60 different real estate professionals, including agents, lenders, vendors, and business partners. Beard has also dedicated his career to connecting with professionals who are advocating for their disabled clients, and is amplifying their voices through the “Accessible Housing Matters” podcast. “I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to serve people for whom the goal of homeownership has seemed remote at times, and to give hope to people that they can live the American Dream just like anybody else,” says Beard.

Come from a place of understanding, curiosity, and care.

Human connection is built upon shared experiences, so when an experience is not relatable to someone, it is particularly important for that person to go into the interaction from a place of understanding and steer clear of forming opinions before understanding the facts. “Avoid stereotyping people with disabilities as having a health problem. Avoid stereotyping all people with disabilities as having the same challenges,” says Beard. And recognize that sometimes, the best way to show up as an ally is to admit that a client may be better served by someone else. “As with any referral, it is important to know and recognize that maybe you don’t have the right tools to take care of a client, and direct them to someone who is better equipped to care for their experience,” says Vallarino.

How are you working toward creating a more equitable real estate experience for clients with disabilities? Let us know in the comment section. 

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