By Colleen Zewe
Though Chicago offers a walkable, wheelchair accessible city, people with disabilities struggle to find affordable housing and 30 percent of those with a disability live in poverty here, a national report finds.
The findings are part of WalletHub’s annual “Best & Worst Cities for People with Disabilities,” released during National Disability Awareness Month. Legally, cities must be accessible to all, regardless of ability. Yet despite laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, many Chicagoans with disabilities face employment struggles.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four U.S. adults have a disability that impacts their daily activities. WalletHub’s report analyzed how well cities serve these people on aspects such as finances, health care access and quality of life. Chicago ranked 35 out of 182 cities overall, but the city received disappointing scores on factors such as income, employment rate and cost of living. Top scorers include Overland Park, Kansas and San Francisco, while New Orleans and Dallas placed poorly in most categories. Chicago’s overall ranking of 35 outpaced New York City (39), Washington D.C. (45), Los Angeles (83), and Boston (142).
Overall, Chicago did well on scores related to walkability and healthcare quality. Thanks to large university health systems, Chicago offers some of the country’s top doctors. The Mayor’s Office for People With Di sabilities also offers in-home aid for personal health, housekeeping, meal preparation, shopping and money management, but these services are limited to four hours a week.
Chicago’s health care costs are much higher than other cities, and because Chicago offers no disability insurance program, 14 percent of Chicagoans are uninsured.
“I think health care in Chicago is severely lacking,” said Michele Lee, a financial analyst who advocates for disability rights. “It is expensive, and so frustrating with red tape and bureaucracy. It takes upwards of a year to get a new wheelchair. It’s impossible to get prompt appointments for doctors, and many private practices are not accessible and deny services to wheelchair users.”
Chicago could also do better with employment. Thanks to federal laws passed in 1973 and 1990, financial assistance programs and employers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. Yet the report found that the employment rate for such people in Chicago is only 77 percent, and their average annual income is $22,241. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $25,100.
According to WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, the high unemployment rate comes despite financial incentives and legal requirements to hire people with disabilities.
“The IRS does offer tax incentives for hiring people with disabilities,” Gonzalez said. “There are tax credits to encourage employers to hire qualified workers who have a disability.”
It may seem odd that the city has both high and low scores, but Gonzalez said that juxtaposition is normal in big cities.
“Larger cities may have more job opportunities and better options in terms of healthcare and entertainment, but they also come with a higher cost of living,” she said. “Greater distances can also make living more difficult for people with disabilities. On the other hand, smaller cities can be more affordable for disabled residents, but it may be harder to find a job, or have access to quality healthcare.”
Skokie, for example, offers a number of personal disability services through the town’s Human Services Division. They have support groups for those who are hard of hearing or have low vision, canes, walkers, crutches and wheelchairs to borrow, reserved residential parking and home delivered meals.
Meanwhile, MOPD offers services that are more logistical, such as social security information. The office also works to improve accessible voting, and ensures the city and its businesses are comply with federal and local disability laws and regulations through various initiatives.
Suzen Riley, of Oak Park, is disabled due to a brain injury and rheumatology disorders. She sees unemployment as an issue in the disability community, and said that most people with disabilities rely on Medicaid.
“Most people I know do not have jobs,” Riley, 55, said. “Since most people I know do not have jobs, health care is free.”
MOPD has an Employee Services Unit, which counsels people on their social security benefits as well resume reviews and job readiness training.
Lee believes more can be done for disability employment.
“In my experience, most people with disabilities in Chicago are on public health insurance and are unemployed or underemployed, as in only considered for low level or entry positions with no consideration for promotion or advancement,” said Lee, 36.
However, Chicago does shine in accessible transportation. MOPD partners with the CTA for the All Stations Accessibility Program. All CTA bus lines are wheelchair accessible, and all but 42 CTA rail stations are wheelchair accessible.
Lee recognizes Chicago’s efforts to aid people with disabilities, but still thinks the city can improve.
“Millennium Park has great universal design, and I appreciate that all CTA buses are wheelchair accessible,” she said. But, she sees room for “more concerted effort to get career opportunities for people with disabilities, like training centers or placement offices like temp agencies.”