In a byline story published in 2017 in the publication Higher Ed, Valerie Piro recounts her experiences as an incoming college freshman exploring options among her top picks of colleges to which she had applied, all of which had accepted her. She applied to all her picks as if she were able-bodied. She quickly found this to be a mistake. For the past year-and-a-half, she had to rely on a wheelchair to get around following a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her from the chest down.
She was working under the impression that every higher education institution was wheelchair accessible. Visiting her first pick, a large research institution, she learned the error of such thinking. As she writes, the visit was a disaster. “Multiple entrances to the main campus included staircases, and I had to circle around the campus before I found a flat entrance,” she recalls. “Once I made it to the main campus, I wheeled over an unstable wooden plank placed over a short staircase. This, a tour guide explained, was a ramp.”
At the second institution she visited, the disability services office assured her that a wheelchair-accessible dorm room was available. They were happy to show her a room. She immediately noticed that the room was too small to fit her physical therapy equipment, much needed in preventing blood clots, muscle atrophy and pressure sores. It was also located in a building at the bottom of a steep hill.
“To the administration, this room, with its accessible bathroom and location within an accessible building that was near food, was a reasonable accommodation. But for a wheelchair-using student who also has to get to the library and to class, it was anything but,” she writes.
In contrast to her primary school experience, in college, she suddenly needed to manage her living arrangements as well as educational needs. This added an extra complication to what can be an overwhelming adjustment for all incoming students to a new environment, with new bureaucracies, and larger staffs and faculties. She soon learned that when students receive little administrative help with accommodating their disability, they must advocate for themselves if they are to make it through.
“My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education,” she writes. “Nobody’s should. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question.”
The lesson that Valerie had to learn is one that seems to confront all who are wheelchair-dependent in today’s world. Disabled access continues to be the kind of issue that we do not really understand unless we have firsthand experience.
It is now a problem that has cropped up in a most unlikely and troubling setting. As reported in the New York Times, in March 2017, a woman inquired about placing her mother-in-law, who was using a wheelchair while recovering from hip surgery, in an assisted living facility in Queens, New York, and was told that wheelchairs were not allowed in the facility. In November, in a similar encounter at an assisted living facility in Manhattan, another woman seeking assisted living for her mother-in-law who was in a wheelchair was informed that they could not accept anyone in a wheelchair.
The truth was that neither of those making the inquiries actually had family members who needed assisted living. They were testers, professional actors working for the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center to investigate whether such facilities discriminate against wheelchair users. According to the Times, this investigation has led to a federal lawsuit against those centers, claiming they discriminate against people in wheelchairs, in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.
Unlike nursing homes, which are subject to federal regulations and regular inspections, assisted and independent living facilities operate under widely varying state laws. In imposing blanket rules against wheelchairs, facilities will often justify their policies by citing state laws they interpret as supporting their authority to impose a ban or will say the laws are ambiguous. Many of these state policies predate the federal laws barring discrimination based on disability. Many have not been revised.
The 2017 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium indicates that the percentage of people with ambulatory disabilities will continue to increase. Many of these folks will need assisted living as their only alternative to expensive nursing homes.
The above is but one manifestation of a growing social problem. In major metropolitan areas around the country, navigating city sidewalks today is a daunting obstacle course for those in wheelchairs. Our city infrastructure is crumbling around us. When we come to a street corner where the street curb ramp is broken or missing, we merely step over it or around it. For a person in a wheelchair, it can mean retracing their route or going around the block until they find a usable ramp.
A current case study is New York City. According to a New York Times report, Manhattan has 162,000 sidewalk corners that have resulted in more than two decades of “trip and fall” litigation. A recent federal court-ordered report highlights numerous shortcomings in the city’s efforts to install and maintain curb ramps to make every corner accessible to people with disabilities. According to the Times, the report found the majority of the city’s curb ramps remain noncompliant with federal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the city lacks even a comprehensive survey of all of its corners or an adequate plan of action.
New York is just one of the many cities with sidewalk systems that are not accessible to all. Denying people in wheelchairs the same opportunity the able-bodied have to get around our streets and buildings leads to social isolation, and fewer opportunities for jobs, education and civic participation. It is time to begin looking at this issue from a wheelchair user’s viewpoint.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.