Let’s acknowledge it: There aren’t many lists available of the nation’s most favorable places to live for people with disabilities. Type “disability friendly cities” into Google, and New Mobility’s 1997 article on the subject is one of the first links you get. In 2010 the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation published their own list of the top 20 most livable cities for wheelchair users, with places as geographically and culturally diverse as Albuquerque, Orlando and Seattle — but the Reeve Foundation says this list is outdated. And the National Organization on Disability no longer runs its Top 10 Friendliest City contest, either.
One reason lists like these aren’t all that common is because it is hard to rank what seem to be tangible, easily quantifiable factors — plentiful rehab facilities, accessible transportation and housing, wheelchair-friendly climate and terrain, and so on. All of those things are important to an urban wheelchair user’s quality of life. But it’s rare to find all those positives in one place. A city with top-notch rehab or personal attendant services may have older housing stock that makes it hard to find an accessible place to live, or steep hills and brutal winters that make getting around difficult if not impossible. And what about the intangibles — a sense of community, abundant cultural opportunities, or a spirit of acceptance of people who are different, including people with disabilities.
The cities below are not ranked in any order. All of them have received recognition in one or more areas that would make them attractive places for people with disabilities — while also being challenging in other ways. And all of the wheelchair users interviewed — whether they’ve lived in the city their whole lives, or moved from somewhere else — express satisfaction in having a place they call “home.”
It’s Easy Being Green
Number one on the Reeve Foundation’s list, Seattle is well known for its postcard-perfect scenery, and as a center for progressive politics and “green” living.
“Coming from Boston, I love the climate and the lack of snow,” says Randy Earle, 44. “I love that the city is on the ocean — I can see the Olympic mountains across Puget Sound from our neighborhood, especially when the sun sets behind them, as well as snow-capped Mount Rainer on clear days. We are also close to the Cascade Mountains, which get a lot of snow and are beautiful.” A Seattle resident for seven years and director of We Will Find a Way — a nonprofit organization that works with businesses to increase access and eliminate barriers for people with disabilities — Earle praises what he sees as the city’s liberal-minded spirit and openness to making accommodations. “The citizens want to do the right thing when it comes to issues related to disability. I think that’s a real positive.”
Earle also enjoys the Bainbridge Island ferry, saying he uses it as an inexpensive cruise. “It provides great views of the islands in Puget Sound and then on the return trip gives a great view of the city,” says Earle. “And it leaves two blocks from our home.”
Although as car-dependent as most other U.S. metro areas, Seattle is also served by an extensive public transit network ranked by U.S. News and World Report as among the nation’s 10 best. Most of the system relies on buses — compared to other urban mass-transit systems, Seattle’s is relatively late to the game when it comes to light rail. But the city is catching up, with one light-rail line already running between downtown and SeaTac Airport, and another from downtown to the University of Washington scheduled to begin operation in 2016.
For accessibility consultant and part-time student Andrea Kovich, 29, the ease of Seattle public transit is what lets her experience the whole city. “I’ve been taking it more and more in the last few years,” says Kovich, who had a stroke at age 12 and moved to Seattle from eastern Washington in 2002. “I don’t drive, so I pretty much take it everywhere.”
For Kovich, “everywhere” means not only a short commute to work and a 40-minute trip to school, but excursions to Seattle Center and the marina on weekends, as well as sailing trips on Lake Washington. It’s not always smooth going — she recently was stuck on a bus for an hour because of a broken lift, and recent budget cuts have resulted in the elimination of some routes — but on the whole, the transit system allows her to cover far more ground than she could just in her power chair. “It gives me a lot more options,” she says.
For Earle, who uses a manual chair, the physical terrain can pose certain problems. “There are a lot of hills,” he says. “I live in one of the oldest parts of the city — there are sidewalks that are on a steep angle, and some poor excuses for curb cuts.” Still, for him, the culture and overall livability are worth a few challenges. “It’s a big enough city that there’s a lot going on, but it’s not overwhelming and not too expensive.”
• Follow Randy Earle’s adventures in access at www.wewillfindaway.org.
• Bainbridge Island Ferry, www.bainbridgeisland.com/ferry
• Metro Transit, metro.kingcounty.gov
• Seattle Center, www.seattlecenter.com. This entertainment campus boasts events ranging from a Josh Groban concert to a Tibet Fest.
• Lake Washington, www.kingcounty.gov/environment/waterandland/lakes/lakes-of-king-county/lake-washington.aspx
Culture Worth Cold
If you watched television in the 1970s, you probably have a single image in your mind when you think of Minneapolis — that of Mary Tyler Moore joyfully tossing her cap into the air at the beginning of the show bearing her name.
Tiffiny Carlson may never have done that, but her enthusiasm still shows through when she talks about the city she calls home. The longtime NEW MOBILITY contributor lives in a one-bedroom condo right in the center of downtown — “close to all the action,” as she describes it.
“It’s especially great during the summer — I’m only three blocks from the Mill City Farmer’s market,” says Carlson, 33. “I’m a foodie — it’s one of the things I’ve grown to love even more since my spinal cord injury.”
The market is “great for picking up a snack on your lunch break,” Carlson says. “I love getting produce, whatever is in season — beets, herbs, kale, cauliflower, heirloom tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, and the fresh cheese/cheese curds too. So good. I like to chop up my produce on my own and roast it with olive oil and herbs. So easy to do, and very quad friendly.”
When she’s not in the mood for eating at home, there are plenty of restaurants to satisfy her palate — as well as stores, bars, brewpubs and all the other trappings of a thriving nightlife. In recent decades, The Twin Cities have shed their image of upright Scandinavian reserve to become one of the most exciting and diverse metro areas in the country. Carlson is particularly taken with the area’s music scene — a point of pride for a city that has produced superstars like Prince as well as alt-rock greats such as Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. “I love First Avenue, the epic music club in downtown Minneapolis. You can get right up to the stage if you’re in a chair. I saw Pink here on her club tour and it was amaaazing. Gosh that was fun. Also each spring they do a giant David Bowie tribute night. I go out a lot, and I stand out because of my chair. Whenever I come here everyone remembers me.
“There are so many music venues here, all famous and historic,” she says. Wheelchair access is a problem so rarely that she can count the instances on one hand. “Once in a while I run into a place with a step or two, but that’s happened maybe five times since I moved here. Even then, the staff has always been very accommodating.”
At quieter times, Carlson enjoys exploring the public parks and walking paths that abound in the city — though of course, that’s only during the warmer months. When the weather becomes too harsh to spend lots of time outside, she takes advantage of the Minneapolis Skyway System — a network of enclosed, climate-controlled walkways connecting most buildings in the downtown area. Like most Minnesotans, she’s learned to cope with — and even love — the area’s bitterly cold winters. “You definitely lead an indoor life for a good part of the year — you really hone your indoor skills. But I love the beauty of all four seasons, and winter is a really good time for me to recharge my batteries.
“It can be hard, but like we say here: Thank God for the weather, because otherwise, Minneapolis would be overcrowded.”
• First Avenue and Seventh Street Entry, 612/332-1775; www.first-avenue.com. Carlson’s favorite of Minneapolis’ famed (and mostly accessible) music clubs.
• Mill City Farmers Market, millcityfarmersmarket.org
• Minneapolis Skyway System, www.skywaymyway.com
San Francisco Bay Area
Disability Ground Zero
For a wheelchair user, the San Francisco Bay area is another place where the topography can prove challenging. Some of the very things that Bay Area residents say make their home so special — steep hills, winding streets lined with beautiful Victorian homes — can be prohibitive for wheelers.
Yet at the same time, the Bay Area has always been a Mecca for the disability community — and not just in Berkeley, the cradle of the independent living movement. In neighboring Oakland and in San Francisco itself, AXIS Dance Company and Sins Invalid are boldly redefining disability arts and culture.
“There’s just an overall cultural awareness here for people with all kinds of disabilities,” says Yomi Wrong, 41, executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley. “The leadership of the area, the politicians and the community, have been completely behind the efforts of the disability rights organizations and the whole movement they came out of — and that’s keenly felt in all aspects of daily life.”
A transplant from New York who lived in Southern California for many years before moving to the Bay Area in 2000, Wrong, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, appreciates not just the acceptance of people of all cultures and abilities in the Bay Area, but also the laid-back atmosphere and ease of getting around. “You don’t sit on the freeway for very long in the Bay Area,” she says. “There are peak times, of course, but it’s nothing like Los Angeles traffic. And it just feels more relaxed here.”
While the cost of living can be high, and high population density and a preponderance of older architecture means a shortage of affordable and accessible housing, the Bay Area has also become something of a showplace for universal design. In Berkeley, the Ed Roberts Campus — the state-of-the-art disability community center where the CIL is headquartered — has become a hub of activity. “We’ve even had weddings here,” Wrong says. “The campus is a real source of pride not just for the disability community but for everybody in the Bay Area.”
• Axis Dance, 510/625-0110; axisdance.org
• Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, 510/841-4776; www.cilberkeley.org
• Ed Roberts Campus, 510/225-6300; www.edrobertscampus.org
• Sins Invalid, 510/689-7198; sinsinvalid.org
Salt Lake City
Fair Cost of Living
Carlos Mitchell, 38, not only has muscular dystrophy, he’s also gay, and a former Mormon. So when he began making plans to move out of Los Angeles, many of his friends were surprised by where he’d chosen to relocate.
Salt Lake City? Seriously?
“I’ve gotten that question often,” he says, laughing. Why would a gay ex-Mormon choose to move to the world center of the Mormon church — a church not exactly known for its liberal stance on issues affecting gays and lesbians. In fact, though, there’s far more to the place than stereotypes would have us believe. Like other urban areas, it’s become increasingly diverse in recent years. “There are a lot of ex-Mormons in Salt Lake City, a lot of people of various racial and religious backgrounds,” Mitchell says. Even the city’s Mormon population has also begun to embrace its increasingly large and visible gay community — in 2013, for the second year in a row, several hundred members of the church, both gay and straight, marched in the city’s Pride parade. “Salt Lake City’s not just straight white people,” Mitchell says. “It’s a city like any other.”
It is also a city with a relatively low cost of living — about 10 percent below the national average, compared with 40 percent above for the Los Angeles area. That’s a big difference for Mitchell, who has lived on his own without family support since he was 18. In California, a combination of rising costs of living and cuts in disability services has made it very difficult for him to get by. In Salt Lake City, by contrast, “every type of support I receive in L.A., I can get with much less expense and hassle.”
One aspect of the city’s Mormon heritage is that it takes very seriously the Christian imperative to care for the less fortunate — something reflected in the high quality of disability services available, and especially the availability of accessible, subsidized housing. Whereas Section 8 waiting lists have been closed in California, just a few months after Mitchell applied, a voucher became available in Utah. Living in a home specifically designed for accessibility, he says, will be a new experience for him. “I’ve always lived in unmodified housing — I’ve had to adapt my lifestyle to fit the home. But I’m at a point where I can’t do that anymore. I need a place that is designed with disability in mind.”
Although he hasn’t lived in Salt Lake City long enough to become settled, Mitchell is looking forward to seeing what it has to offer, with a group of friends already there who he can rely on for help. “I can trust them to be my support network — people who are very knowledgeable about my disability and about my life.”
• Utah Independent Living Center, 801/466-5565; www.uilc.org.
Winters in the Windy City can be a trial for anyone, especially a wheelchair user. With snow, icy temperatures, and the city’s infamous wind, it can be difficult if not impossible some days to get around on wheels.
But according to Tim Sullivan, summers are glorious. “It’s my favorite time of year — I love spending time on the lake, at the beach, at the park and the zoo, what have you,” says Sullivan, 53, who uses a power chair because of muscular dystrophy. He also enjoys the occasional baseball game, as well as checking out the frequent movie location shoots that happen in the downtown area during the summer months. “Sometimes I even get work as a movie extra.” Over the years he’s shown up on the television show ER as well as Transformers and My Best Friend’s Wedding. “In that one there’s a really good shot of me rolling in the background,” he says.
A longtime advocate for accessible transportation, Sullivan describes Chicago’s transit system as “a lot better than it was. Where I live, there’s a bus stop right outside my door and an accessible train station right down the block. The city is a lot better than it used to be, accessibility wise. There are still places where curb cuts aren’t there, or are too steep, but you’ll find that in any city.”
For Susan Aarup, 44, Chicago is about culture — especially theater. “Chicago has a whole lot to offer culturally,” she says. An employment advocate at the city’s Progress Center for Independent Living and a co-organizer of Chicago’s annual Disability Pride Parade, Aarup, who has cerebral palsy, is also involved with The Access Project, a program that offers classes and workshops designed to integrate people with disabilities into all aspects of theater, both on and off the stage. “Our plays don’t have to have a disability focus, but they often do,” she says. “Disability is just a part of who we are.”
On the whole, she says, Chicago’s disability community is very close-knit and has a strong sense of pride — in keeping with the community spirit that is a hallmark of so many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, including the one she lives in. “Chicago neighborhoods tend to be their own communities. They each have their own community gatherings, neighborhood block parties, all year round. They really make you feel at home.”
• Access Living, 312/640-2100; www.accessliving.org
• The Access Project, Victory Gardens Theater, 773/549-5788; www.victorygardens.org/enhance/accessproject.php
• Chicago Cubs, chicago.cubs.mlb.com
• Chicago White Sox, chicago.whitesox.mlb.com
• Progress Center for Independent Living, 708/388-5011; www.progresscil.org
Power of Self-Direction
Since the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision in 1999, people with disabilities who rely on Medicaid for their longterm care have had the right — in theory, anyway — to receive that care in their own homes, rather than institutions. In practice, of course, the various states that administer Medicaid programs have been slow to implement the court’s decision, and many people with disabilities remain in nursing homes, because those are the only places where they can receive the longterm care they need.
In Topeka, however, the disability community has a history of aggressively pushing for in-home services. The local CIL, the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, has long been a leader in helping people with disabilities to transition out of nursing homes. The city also has hosted one of the country’s most active ADAPT chapters, and for many years was the home of Mouth magazine, a publication whose in-your-face attitude and journalism was on the leading edge of the disability rights movement throughout the 1980s, the 1990s and beyond.
At the state level, Kansas has been very progressive in empowering people with disabilities to take charge of how they receive personal care services. Says Mike Oxford, director of the TILRC, “Back in the ’80s, we passed state laws that give people the right to self-direct” — meaning the ability to hire, negotiate with and manage their personal care attendants. “That’s a right that applies regardless of your age or disability.”
As a center for independent living, TILRC offers its services to people with disabilities who choose to self-direct — helping to identify what programs they are eligible for, assisting in the applications process, teaching disabled people how to hire and manage their own PCAs, and even facilitating the payment of PCAs through TILRC’s payroll service.
Sharon Stansbury, 52, who grew up in Kansas City but has lived in Topeka since 2009, is effusive in her praise of TILRC for being an advocate and helping her clear hurdles in securing accessible housing. “If it hadn’t been for them, I would have never gotten in the place where I am living now,” she says. “I am just so grateful. They really go above and beyond to help people with disabilities.”
Asked what her favorite thing is about Topeka, her answer is simple.
“It’s my home.”
• Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, 785/233-4572; www.tilrc.org
Takin’ It To The Streets
As accessible cities go, Boston is not going to top any lists. It’s one of the oldest cities in the United States, and it has the infrastructure to show for it, with an irregular street layout, cobblestone and brick pavements, and centuries-old buildings that can be difficult or impossible to negotiate in a chair. Local politics have also posed their own obstacles, with the city only beginning in 2007 to address accessibility issues, after more than a decade of legal wrangling.
One reason the city finally got motivated to address accessibility was the persistent advocacy of the Boston Center for Independent Living. BCIL partnered with Greater Boston Legal Services to bring about needed changes in transportation accessibility, forcing a legal agreement in 2006 with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for $310 million in upgrades. Most recently BCIL and GBLS combined to force major hospitals in the area to enter into structured negotiations to improve accessibility in health care [see “Equal Health Care: If Not Now, When?” August 2013].
And yet, despite ongoing battles for improved awareness and accessibility, wheelers live here — and love it. John Kelly, a 55-year-old quad, has lived in Boston for 30 years and enjoys all the greenery that abounds here, an abundance that often surprises first-time visitors. “I can cross the street from my home and be in a park,” he says. In his neighborhood, the Charles River Esplanade and the Back Bay Fens — part of a chain of public parks known collectively as the Emerald Necklace — provide lots of opportunities to escape the urban grit. He also enjoys relaxing in and taking visitors to the nearby Christian Science Plaza — a wide open space with a reflecting pool, fountain and frequent art exhibits. “It’s a wonderful place for wheelchair users to go,” he says.
Access in much of the city is still “a little hit or miss,” Kelly admits. Sidewalks — even along tourist-oriented routes like the Freedom Trail — can be rough going, with brick and cobblestone paving and often-missing curb cuts. “A lot of wheelchair users in Boston — we wheel in the street very frequently,” he says. But in the last few years the situation has been steadily improving. Also, in its efforts to become more bicycle-friendly, the city has added new bike lanes, which Kelly and other wheelers often make use of.
Does he ever have any run-ins with irritated cyclists? Kelly just laughs. “I haven’t been yelled at yet. They’re kind of afraid of us.”
• Boston Center for Independent Living, www.bostoncil.org
• Charles River Esplanade, Esplanade Association, 617/227-0365; www.esplanadeassociation.org
• Emerald Necklace Conservancy, which includes Back Bay Fens, 617/522-2700; www.emeraldnecklace.org
• Christian Science Plaza, 617/450-2000; christianscience.com/church-of-christ-scientist/the-mother-church-in-boston-ma-usa/visiting-the-christian-science-plaza
• Freedom Trail, 617/357-8300; www.thefreedomtrail.org