By James Perry, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center

Ask anyone on the street to describe civil rights. Chances are they will bring up issues of race, gender and/or sexuality. They may refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks.

Unfortunately, even the most ardent advocate may omit consideration of a class of people who have been dehumanized and oppressed throughout the United States' history: people with disabilities.

Until recently, people with physical and mental disabilities were considered members of an unfortunate class. They were relegated to asylums and forced to live insular lives.

Disability was considered so abhorrent that Franklin D. Roosevelt, when serving as President from 1933 to 1945, almost never allowed himself to be photographed in his wheelchair. He had suffered polio and was unable to walk.

It was not until 1961 that the United States began to warm to the idea that people with disabilities should be integrated into American communities. Under pressure from advocates, the American National Standards Institute published A117.1 Making Buildings Accessible to and Usable by the Physically Handicapped. What followed over the years was legislation that progressively worked to make American buildings more accessible to people with physical disabilities. Under a number of laws passed from the 1970's to the 1990's the number and type of buildings required to integrate accessible features into their design increased.

In spite of legislative progress, there is much to be done to address disability rights in our communities. There are two major issues. First, in many circles, it is acceptable to use repugnant terms to describe people with disabilities. The United States has to make a fundamental shift in its rhetoric. We must no longer use language that dehumanizes and insults people with disabilities.

Second, in spite of the legislative progress, consistently, buildings are built in a manner inaccessible to people with disabilities. Of twenty-two complexes examined by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center through its 2009 Housing Accessibility Audit, not one apartment complex in the New Orleans area met all the accessibility requirements of the Federal Fair Housing Act. This is of particular concern since the majority of the complexes examined were built since Hurricane Katrina and are clearly required to meet accessibility standards.

Many have espoused about the new New Orleans burgeoning through the post-Katrina era.  Often leaders say this new New Orleans will be open to all people. The Access Denied 2009 audit report demonstrates, however, that this isn't the case. The Audit makes clear that people who use wheelchairs will have substantial difficulty finding usable housing in the New Orleans metropolitan area. Let this report serve as a wake up call to housing developers, government officials and people across the community. All of us must work to make New Orleans open and welcoming to all people by insisting on accessible housing.

James Perry is the Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.