Special Needs Checklist:
How Disability-Friendly is Your City?
The city you live in can have an enormous impact on your quality of life – especially if you have a disability. From wheelchair accessible sidewalks to employment options to the weather itself, there are a variety of characteristics that can determine whether your hometown is a good place to live.
So how disability-friendly is your city?
This could depend on the kind of special needs you have. A lot of city features just might not be as important for you as others. State and local laws will also be a factor. As a minimum, the American with Disabilities Act requires that state and local governments make their programs and services easily accessible to people with disabilities. With that said, it doesn’t mean that all cities and states are alike. Some places may go out of their way to make themselves more appealing to people who happen to be disabled, while other cities might barely do what’s legally required of them. Whether you’re looking to move to a new city that’s great for a person with a handicap or you’re curious to see how accommodating your hometown is, this checklist will help you figure that out. We’ll cover the 77 features that can make your city or town disability-friendly.
Living and Housing Considerations
Finding a place to live is not as easy for people with special needs. In fact, for a lot of people with disabilities, finding housing is their number one priority. You can’t just buy any old home or condo on the market. Having a handicap means you will be faced with added expenses that most homeowners don’t have to take into account. There are many things you’re going to want to keep an eye out for, things that people without your needs won’t even realize. Like how wide are all the doors in the home? If it’s more than two stories, is there an elevator? Are handicap parking spots nearby? What about braille at the entrances to rooms and common areas? Here we break down all the things you’ll want to consider when evaluating housing for people with special needs:
- Is the housing market affordable? With rising home prices in major cities like San Francisco and New York, you may want to consider areas that are well within your price range. You can use this mortgage affordability calculator to see how much you can afford.
- Are monthly payments in your budget? Whether you’re renting or paying a mortgage, you don’t want too much of your income going to housing costs. Check out this affordability calculator for renters if you’re unsure.
- What condition are the homes in? If you’re going to buy a home make sure to check things like the plumbing, the roof, and major appliances. The cost to repair any of these home features can add up quick. You can use this tool to find out the average cost of hiring a handyman in your location.
- How much will home maintenance services cost? If you can’t mow your lawn, walk your dog, or shovel snow from the driveway you’ll want to take these costs into account. These expenses will be higher in cities with a high cost of living.
- Is affordable housing easy to find? The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can help you find affordable housing in your city. Many cities set aside affordable-housing units that are available only to those with low-income. Use this link to find a local HUD Office in your state.
- Are public housing units available? The wait for public housing units can take months or even years. If you qualify for this benefit and want to see what the availability is like in an area, you can find that information here.
- Do the apartment buildings need upkeep? If you’re going to rent a place to live, check the condition of the building. Is the landlord or property management company taking care of repairs? If the place looks run down, dirty, or in need of repair, it may be less likely that they will make repairs to your unit in a timely manner. Consider looking somewhere else before you sign a lease.
- How old is the apartment complex? The Fair Housing Act requires that all "covered multifamily dwellings" designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, must be accessible and usable to people with disabilities. This means that public and common-use areas must meet certain accessibility conditions like handicap parking and doors wide enough for a wheelchair to fit through. Older complexes may not be as disability-friendly.
- Is there plenty of first-floor housing? Bigger cities with lots of high-rises are going to have fewer residences on the ground level. Look for flatter cities and those with plenty of ground floor units.
- Are there self-storage units available, if you need to store some of your belongings? Depending on the cost of housing, you might find yourself in smaller digs than you’re used to. Putting excess items in a storage unit can buy you time to figure out if you’re happy in your new home and whether you want to keep everything or not. See what storage options are like in your city.
- Are independent living centers an option? All U.S. states and territories are required to operate a statewide independent living council (SILC). These councils are tasked with improving independent living services for people with disabilities. To find out how to reach your state council click here.
- What’s the cost of public transportation? If you take the bus often or need to ride the train, you’ll want to know what the going rate is for your city.
- How much does food cost? The cost of food varies by city and state. The number and type of grocery store chain is also something to consider. Here’s a great cost of living calculator that helps you compare different cities in the US.
- What are the costs of entertainment? Consider the cost of a movie ticket, a meal at a restaurant, or admission to the local symphony. These will give you an idea of the overall cost of your monthly entertainment.
- How much does gas cost? The cost of gas varies greatly by state and city. If fuel is a typical expense of yours, you will want to know what the average cost of a gallon is.
- What are the tax rates (local and state)? Different states can tax common items like food, gas, and clothing very differently. Here is a good resource to find out generally how much people are paying in taxes by state.
- How large is the percentage of people with disabilities? Cities with a large community of people with disabilities can make it easier to find others you might relate with. You could also find that resources for the disabled are more available in these areas and you’ll be more aware of events and opportunities made specifically for people with a handicap. Here is a great resource to find the percentage of non-institutionalized people who reported a disability per state.
- How many people with disabilities are homeless? Cities with a lot of homeless people with disabilities might be a sign that aid and resources for the disabled are slim. It can also mean that housing for the disabled is difficult to find and maintain.
- Are public restrooms generally accessible? Cities with lots of old buildings might not have as many accessible restrooms? Are facilities conveniently located and handicap accessible?
- How is the cell phone coverage? Smartphone apps do wonderful things for many people with disabilities, but they aren’t much help if you can’t use them. How good are cell phone and wifi service? Some cities might offer free public wifi to their residents.
Convincing an employer that you’re qualified for a job isn’t as easy when you have a disability. In fact, unemployment rates for disabled people are typically double the rates of overall unemployment in the United States. But thankfully there are laws designed to help people with a handicap get a job. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires all government agencies, companies with federal contracts, and companies who do business with the government to aim to have 7% of their workforces made up of people with disabilities. The Washington, D.C. metro area – a place with lots of government agencies – might be a good place to look for work! If that’s not your cup of tea, here are some other employment considerations to keep in mind when evaluating a city:
- What is the employment rate for people with disabilities? Not all states are the same. Some have disability job placement programs while others do not. Check with your state, or the one you’re considering moving to.
- What is the median income for people with disabilities? Individuals with a disability reported earning nearly $10,000 a year less than people without a disability. You’ll want to find a place where the income is not very low for a disabled person. Check your state to find out what the median household income rates are for a disabled person.
- What percent of people with disabilities live below the poverty line? Almost one-third of people with work limitations live under the poverty line. Find out what the average is for your state here.
- Does the city or state have a jobs program for the disabled? The Department of Labor is a great resource for finding job training and job placement. They even have resources for people with disabilities.
- Are there sheltered workshops? These are supervised workplaces for people with physical disabilities or mental handicaps. Many states regulate these programs. Some better than others. Often the pay is based on how much work gets done. Make sure the ones in your state don’t pay less than minimum wage.
Having a high school diploma or a college degree will not only make your job search easier, but it can earn you more income. That’s why it’s very important to evaluate a city for its educational benefits. However, high school and college graduation rates for the disabled are typically lower than the average. Thankfully, the Department of Education has numerous resources and programs to help people with disabilities complete their educational goals. Some states also have their own educational benefits that accommodate people with disabilities. Like publicly funded colleges for people who have visual impairments, intellectual disabilities, or other special needs. Here are some things to keep in mind when evaluating a city for education:
- Are there colleges for the visually impaired? There are many institutions where a person with full or partial blindness can get a good education. Here a list of some of the best colleges for the visually impaired.
- What are the graduation rates of people with disabilities? Schools with better programs for the disabled have much better graduation rates. Check with the rates in the schools for the city you’re evaluating.
- Are there training and vocational programs available? A standard education is not always a good fit for everyone. Vocational education or rehabilitation can help you learn job-related skills that can help you secure a job. Find out about your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency.
- How much state funding is available for students with disabilities? Some states are more dedicated to their programs than others. Here is a good guide to seeing how much your state spends.
- How many special education teachers per 1,000 school-aged people with disabilities are there? The more teachers there are the more likely it is that disabled students are getting a better education. Here is a good resource to find out how many there are in your state and how much they are getting paid.
- Are their college programs for people with special needs? Universities that receive federal funds are required to meet minimum standards for accessibility. Some are better than others and go well beyond the minimum standards. Here is a list of some of the best disability-friendly colleges and universities.
Health Care and Assistance Services
For people living with a disability, access to quality healthcare can be critical. Some of us may require frequent visits to a specialist and this can really narrow down your options if you are considering a move to another city.
- How many doctors and nurses are there per capita? The more healthcare professionals in your city can greatly increase your access to care. There may be more offices and hospitals nearby, making it easier to get to appointments.
- How many hospitals and clinics are there per capita? The more the better. Not only will it be easier and quicker to get care, but you will have a lot more options.
- Are there sufficient pharmacies? Make sure there are a sufficient number of pharmacies in your city, and that they are easy to get to.
- How many occupational therapists are there per capita? This is important especially if you recently suffered a disability or your symptoms are getting worse. The more occupational therapists the better it is for your quality of life.
- How many physical therapists are there per capita? Physical therapists can help improve your movement if you are suffering from a physical disability.
- What is the average health insurance premium? Different states have different health insurance companies. You will want to find a plan that is both affordable and covers your healthcare needs.
- What percent of the population is uninsured? A higher uninsured rate is not a good sign. It could mean that the premiums are too high, or that the state provides few benefits.
- How much is the cost of a doctor’s visit? Some insurers require that you pay a copay each time you visit the doctor. In other cases, you must pay out of pocket until you meet a deductible. You will want to take both into account, especially if you see a doctor regularly.
- What are the annual costs of in-home services? Some special needs require frequent home visits from a nurse or other healthcare professional. Sometimes, they are covered by insurance. But there are services that might not be. Find out what the average hourly rates are for in-home assistants. This will give you a better idea of how much you will need to spend annually.
- Is your state a Medicaid expansion state? Some states participate in Medicaid expansion, which greatly increases funding and access to medical care for people with low incomes. Here is a good guide to figuring out if your state participates.
- Is group housing or assisted living available? Find out the cost and availability of living in one of these locations. They are often staffed with trained medical personnel that are familiar with your disability. You can also find other people to relate with who share the same handicap.
Quality of life
Ultimately your quality of life should be the number one factor when evaluating a city as a place to call home. Keep an eye out for things that are going to reduce barriers that can keep you from living a full and fulfilling life. Activities like going shopping, spending time at the park, socializing and getting to work should be easier to do in a disability-friendly city. There are other factors you’ll want to consider that you may not have thought of like air quality and personal safety. Below we’ve listed some things to look out for:
- How good (or bad) is the air quality? Some disabilities and conditions are made worse if the air quality is bad. Big polluted cities with smog, inversion, or frequent smoke from fires can all have an impact. Make sure to keep an eye out for air quality at all times of the year. You can also check to see some of the worst and best cities for air quality.
- Are there lots of parks? Parks and other public recreational places are great for the body and mind. They’re known to improve mental health and can also act as an escape from city life, especially if you live in a large metropolitan area.
- Are there public recreation centers? These centers often have gyms and courts for team sports and activities. Some are equipped with classrooms and spaces for social events. Check the city’s website to see their weekly events. They can be a great resource if you’re moving into a new city and are looking to make friends and meet people.
- How are the city’s libraries? A public library is almost always very accessible for the disabled. They are loaded with resources and completely free. Check these places in person to see how clean and accessible they are.
- Are there day centers and are they easy to access? Day centers can be a great local resource. These places often offer adult day services and therapeutic programs for individuals with physical, social, or cognitive impairments. The staff are trained to care for people who need some assistance with daily living activities.
- How available and accessible are recreation opportunities? Things like adaptive or accessible recreation give people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in sports and other physical activities. Wheelchair basketball, for example, is an activity modification where the game is played with all participants using wheelchairs, regardless of disability. Other activities use assistive technology like prosthetics to enable participation.
- Are there disability-friendly playgrounds? Newer playgrounds are increasingly being equipped with disability-friendly features. Keep an eye out for things like wheelchair friendly boardwalks, barrier-free playgrounds, and adaptive swings. There are some amazing playgrounds made with children who are disabled in mind.
- Are there plenty of grocery stores? Some communities are known as “food deserts” because it’s difficult to find affordable or good-quality fresh food. These are typically urban areas where there are convenience stores, but not large well-stocked grocery stores that carry fresh produce. The USDA has created a great resource called the Food Access Research Atlas where you can find out if your neighborhood is well provisioned.
- Is there a spiritual center nearby? If you regularly attend religious services, keep an eye out for places where you can practice your faith.
- Does the city have a low-crime rate? Having a handicap can make you more vulnerable to some crimes of opportunity. Check online for your city or towns crime statistics.
Transportation & Accessibility
Getting from your home to any other point in the city can be a logistical nightmare if you have a disability. Some people might feel too discouraged to even leave their home. In one World Health Organization study, they found that a person with a disability is less likely to socialize or to work without accessible transportation. Inadequate public transportation creates a huge barrier to accessing everything previously mentioned in this checklist. Here is what you need to know when evaluating a city for transportation and accessibility:
- Are the sidewalks in good condition? Some cities are great about repairing their sidewalks, while others are not. Make sure to take note of this.
- Do the sidewalks have ramps? Not all sidewalks are created equal! Check and see if the city or town has plenty of sidewalk ramps. Also, make sure that they are not built too steep.
- Do the sidewalks have tactile paving or truncated domes? These are the yellow bumps that you often see to the start of a sidewalk. They are visibility aids that assist people with visual impairments. Sidewalks are required to have them as an indicator between the street and a sidewalk.
- Are there plenty of ramps for wheelchair accessibility? The entrance to some shops and restaurants might have a step or two to get inside. Look for ramps and no-step entries.
- Is there braille in public spaces? Some cities are putting braille on handrails that indicate your location and the direction you’re going in. These are great for the visually impaired.
- Do the crosswalks have Accessible Pedestrian Signals? These are audible aids for the visually impaired to indicate to a person that it is safe to use the crosswalk.
- Do the crosswalks have adequate lighting and visual signals? Keep an eye out for clear visual signals that it is safe to cross a street.
- Is there sufficient street lighting? Street lamps that adequately illuminate the streets and sidewalks are a plus for everyone, disabled or not.
- Do public doors open automatically? Many entrances have automatic doors that open automatically. These are great because they don’t require that you turn a knob.
- Are public doors opened with door levers instead of knobs? Lever-style handles are much easier to open than knobs.
- How available is public transportation? Are there a lot of bus stops in the city? What about subway stops or a light rail system? To find out how a city’s public transportation stacks up, check out this convenient guide that ranks over 250 American cities.
- Do the buses have ramps, lifts or carriers for wheelchairs? Buses and other public transportation services should be equipped with ramps or wheelchair lifts, and carriers to make it easy and convenient to get on board.
- Are announcements audible and easy to hear? Many public transportation announcements are difficult to hear, even for someone without a hearing impairment. Keep an ear out for looped announcements that are frequently repeated and easy to comprehend.
- Are announcements and stop locations visible? It should be easy to see what station or stop you’ve arrived at. Make sure the signs are easily visible on the platforms and inside of the transportation system you are using.
- Is there plenty of reserved seating for the handicapped? Public transportation should have adequate seating and space near the exits.
- Are there elevators in public transportation stations? Check to see if there are elevators that are functioning and easy to use.
- Is there a paratransit service? This is a special transportation service for people with disabilities. They are typically provided as a supplement to a fixed-route bus and/or rail system. Some cities have an incredible paratransit service that can pick you up from your front door and drop you off anywhere within city limits. This can be a great resource for anyone who doesn’t live near a bus stop or train station.
- Is the city walkable? Whether you are in a wheelchair or not, a city’s walkability is something you will want to factor in. This can determine things like your proximity to parks, shops, and other convenient places. Here is a great resource to figure out if your city or neighborhood has a good walk score.
- Is there an airport nearby? If you need to get to an airport, the closer one is to the city center the better. Also, check to see if there are direct public transportation route to get there. You will also want to factor in the cost to get to the airport if you don’t have someone to take you.
- Is there adequate handicap parking on public streets? If you drive or have a helper transport you, keep an eye out for handicap accessible parking. Check to see that the spots are clearly marked and that the lines on the pavement are easy to see.
- Are there handicap accessible taxis? If you often require a taxi, make sure that the local taxi companies are equipped with accessible vehicles.
- How congested are the streets and sidewalks? Busier cities can be difficult to navigate through, especially during rush hour. Look for a neighborhood that has low foot traffic.
- Do pharmacies and grocery stores deliver? It might be safer and more convenient to have essential items delivered to your front door. Check with the local stores to see if they offer these services.
So how disability friendly is your city? What about the one you’re considering moving to? This comprehensive checklist should help you figure that out. If you have special needs, finding the right place to live can change your life dramatically for the better. There are some rankings that already exist to help you determine how your city ranks, but this checklist should help you make your own determination.