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The ADA Turns 31: Looking at the Best Places for Those with Disabilities

In honor of the ADA’s 31st anniversary, we’re highlighting the best states and cities where those with disabilities can not only live, but thrive!

Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted in 1990, federal law prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in regards to employment, transportation, public accommodations, and communications, as well as access to state and local government programs and services. In honor of the 31st anniversary of the law’s passing, we’re highlighting some of the best states and cities where those with disabilities can not only live, but thrive.

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Accessibility is Still an Issue Across the Country

Roughly one in four Americans — some 61 million people — have some form of disability, either cognitive or physical. For the other 75%, the chances of developing or incurring a disability grows as you age, with 40% seniors age 65 experiencing at least one form.

“Every city has positives and negatives, and unfortunately inaccessibility still exists across the country,” says Rachita Singh of the Association of Americans With Disabilities, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to boost the political and economic power of the people it represents.

According to a study published last year by Science Direct, a platform for peer-reviewed literature, 65% of curb ramps and 48% of sidewalks in our cities are not accessible for people with disabilities. Cities are far behind where they should be, according to Yochai Eisenberg, one of the study’s authors and a professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The ADA requires local jurisdictions to get rid of such barriers as buildings accessible only by stairs, crosswalks that are not safe for those with limited or no vision and steeply sloped walkways that put wheelchair occupants at risk. But Eisenberg said that of the 401 government entities reviewed, a mere 13% had transition plans that were readily available.

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Best States for Residents with Disabilities

A recent study by online insurance comparison website Policygenius ranked states based on economic data, including income and the unemployment rate for residents with a disability; affordability, including housing costs as a percent of income; livability, or how easy it is for residents to get around, and the state of health care and insurance.

Coming out on top was Massachusetts, with the second-best livability score and the fourth-best health care score. On the livability side, it ranked in the study’s top 10 for its walkability and public transit. The Bay State’s biggest ding regarding disabled residents in the work force was high unemployment — at 15%, the study’s 15th-highest — however, the median annual earnings for workers with disabilities was ranked 15th-highest in the country, at $23,984.

Rounding out the study’s Top Five are:

  • Pennsylvania. Of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the Keystone State earned the top livability score. It has the ninth-most-used public transit system and earned the third-best transit score, and is the fourth most-walkable.
  • Vermont. The Green Mountain State ranked as the third-best for living with a disability, scoring in the top 16 for three out of the four scores used in the study — health care, livability, and economic data. At 5.4%, labor force participation is also among the highest in the nation.
  • North Dakota. The only Midwestern state in the top 10, the Peach Garden State does particularly well in the economic and affordability metrics. The median monthly housing cost of $782 is ninth-lowest, and the minimum hourly wage needed to live comfortably is 15th-lowest at $11.12.
  • Maryland. Old Line State residents with disabilities have median annual earnings of $30,031, the second highest of all states. Livability is also high, ranking 16th. The state’s health care system also plays a big part in it’s top-five ranking.

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Best Cities for Residents with Disabilities

A different study, from financial website WalletHub, drills down a bit deeper to the best and worst cities for those with disabilities. The study examined the financial challenges facing people with disabilities, and focused on cities with the most effective programs for inclusion and improving quality of life. Using 34 relevant metrics across three “key dimensions” – economy, quality of life and health care – they rated 182 cities, including the 150 most populous and two of the most populated cities in each state.

The winner? Scottsdale, Arizona, with the 10th best economy, the 39th best quality of life and the 35th best health care system. Overall, Scottsdale scored the highest with a rating of 57.20. Rounding out the study’s top five were:

  • St. Louis, Missouri, with an overall score 57.03. The economy isn’t so hot at 125th. But the city ranks 12th in terms of quality of life, and fifth in health care.
  • South Burlington, Vermont, at 56.40. Here, health care is ranked 116th; but, it’s third in terms of the economy and 36th for quality of life.
  • Huntington Beach, California, at 56.07, and ranks 25 in terms of economy, 31st for quality of life and 39th for health care.
  • Bismark, North Dakota, at 55.90. No. 1 when it comes to health care and 18th in terms of the economy, but 153rd in terms of quality of life

By comparison, the city with the worst rating, Bridgeport, Connecticut, scores just 38.06, and ranks 178th in terms of its economy, 145th when it comes to quality of life, and 180th for health care.

Best Cities: Honorable Mentions

While many other factors comprise quality of life, the ability to get around is often the main barrier to enjoying the urban experience. If you happen to browse standalone articles in search of the most accessible cities, chances are these locales will be mentioned:

Denver, Colorado — You might not think so, but The Mile High City is actually relatively flat. All of its transit systems, including light rail and bus lines, are wheelchair accessible, making Denver easily navigable by anyone, regardless of physical ability. As an added bonus, the majority of Denver’s attractions and museums, like the Museum of Nature and Science, also offer assistive resources to those with vision, hearing or sensory issues.

Seattle, Washington — The so-called Emerald City is more than its trademark wet weather and coffee houses. It’s transit system and light rail lines are best of the best, with all of them wheelchair accessible and complete with map displays of accessible routes. They also offer reduced services for disabled riders, making it a friendly city for all to navigate.

Virginia Beach, Virginia — This popular vacation destination on the Atlantic Ocean has numerous tourist spots and outdoor activities, like hiking trails and state parks, that are wheelchair accessible, according to Cory Lee, a disabled travel writer. Most everything here is centrally located, so days can be as action packed or slow as you like!

(READ MORE: Making a Home Wheelchair Accessible)

What to Ask If You’re Looking to Move

If you or someone you love has a disability and are looking to move, Singh recommends speaking directly with people with similar conditions or concerns and asking them about the pros and cons of living where they do. Ask about transportation, accessibility, employment opportunities, local private and government programs and anything else you that may impact your daily life.

Once you find a place where you might want to reside, contact state and local agencies and consumer groups to determine how well a certain locality can address your needs.

Lew Sichelman
See more posts by this author

Syndicated newspaper columnist, Lew Sichelman has been covering the housing market and all it entails for more than 50 years. He is an award-winning journalist who worked at two major Washington, D.C. newspapers and is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

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