Willard Says...

May 30, 2023

How to be Disabled in Chicago

By Amanda Friedlander

It is a uniquely difficult experience to watch your own body devolve from something you previously perceived as strong and resilient to something that barely passes for functioning. The first few doctors just want to cut you open, and several of them do, subjecting your already-aching body to a series of invasive and painful procedures. In one instance, the doctor who performs such a procedure ghosts you as soon as he receives your copay. Putting aside all the complexities of finding a provider who accepts your insurance, believes that you’re suffering, and puts forth a genuine plan of action, you find you’re struggling just to get through the day. You make the decision to work from home for awhile, and soon you realize that it is almost impossible to be a broker when you yourself are broken. 

We would all like to believe that Chicago is a progressive utopia of social awareness and justice. We’d like to believe that we’ve come a long way in respect to accessibility. The truth is that most places in the world, and specifically in Chicago, are a nightmare for people with physical disabilities. The physical and emotional toll of living and working in Chicago whilst battling a chronic, crippling condition is enormous, and that’s to say nothing of the financial burden. The City offers handicap services such as refueling assistance and free mobility devices, but not only does the approval process take weeks if not months, but those services are limited to six hours per week and assessed on an individual basis. During that process you’re compelled to share the intimate details of your disability and defend the thesis of your suffering to convince the assessor to approve your application for assistance. For months, I had been told that I was too young to be this sick, and that I must be faking it for attention. Instead of subjecting myself to another gaslighting session, I opted to try to find my own help. $85 for pickup and drop-off wash-and-fold laundry service. $100 for weekly meal delivery. $2,500 for a motorized wheelchair, or $150 for a bare-bones manual one. Thousands of dollars in medical bills. My school doesn’t offer any kind of assistance to get to and from class, and the nearest parking garage is two blocks away, so my only option is to spend hundreds of dollars on Uber rides which can pick me up and drop me off directly in front of the entrance. And thousands of dollars in missed opportunities due to being too unwell to handle showings at work. 

When you are finally able to secure a wheelchair, you find you can’t maneuver it around your apartment. The threshold of every door is lifted just enough to make it impossible to push yourself over it without losing purchase, and every hallway is just a bit too tight of a squeeze. The gaps in the elevator trap your wheels so you nearly somersault out of your chair. The walkway from your lobby to the sidewalk is all stairs – no ramp, no handrail – and the only access to your garage is via a steep driveway covered in cracks and various detritus that sticks to your wheels and gets tracked back into your apartment. Out in the world, wheelchair ramps are few and far between. The ones that do exist are in abysmal condition. Most buildings lack a handicap button on the door, so you have to wait until someone takes pity on you and lets you in, or, like me, you McGyver your cane into a makeshift claw and pull the door open that way. Sidewalks are a mess of shattered concrete that resembles a stairmaster, with slabs sticking out every which way. More than once you have to turn around and find alternate routes because a tree is situated in the middle of the walkway, or a mailbox has cut your available rolling space in half. On the days you’re able to recruit a friend to take you outside and enjoy the sunshine, you narrowly escape several catastrophic injuries just getting to the lakefront bike trail, and that’s to say nothing of actually rolling along that trail. When you arrive back home, your apartment’s only elevator is being repaired, so you sit in your lobby staring daggers into the repairman’s back, telepathically willing him to work quickly so you can get upstairs and get back in bed. I signed my apartment lease before any of my health problems reared their ugly heads, so accessibility didn’t even occur to me at the time. Neither I nor any of my friends or family expected it to be so hard for me to get to and from work, let alone in and out of my apartment.  

14% of Chicagoans report having some kind of disability, with most of those requiring some kind of assistive device. Why, then, is accessibility such an afterthought? In many buildings, installing a wheelchair ramp or lift can cost upwards of $100,000, and installing just one handicap-accessible door can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000. That’s to say nothing of the cost to repair and replace broken sidewalk slabs, which, let’s be honest, has never been a city priority. Disabilities can be incredibly isolating if for no other reason than it’s just easier to stay home rather than try to navigate the world from a seated position. Most people perceive the need to be so small and niche that it’s not worth the expense of implementing accommodations, or they assume that the disabled population consists only of those who are well past retirement age, so it’s a waste of time and effort to consider accessible upgrades in office spaces. They don’t see thousands of wheelchair-bound or cane-wielding businesspeople out and about, so they assume they don’t exist in significant numbers. But in reality, 10% of Chicagoans aged 35 to 64 report having a disability, and many of those Chicagoans grapple with the reality every day that the world is not designed to accommodate them. So instead, like me, they stay home. 

The problem is self-perpetuating. Push it under the rug, table it for another time, we’ll get to it when we can justify the cost. The solution is universal design, with all kinds of people in mind, including those who require a little extra help to get around. Lower call buttons on elevators. Small, $50 ramps installed on all door thresholds. Wider hallways, elevators, and doors. Modernized, adaptable turnstiles. Abundant seating. Handrails on all stairways. Designated handicap street parking. Automatic handicap door openers. Rugs or flooring with a little bit of traction to minimize slip-and-fall risk. Adjustable lighting with lower light switches. Or, at the very least, onsite management to assist tenants who unexpectedly experience physical hardship and require accessibility upgrades. 

Right now is the perfect time to reassess the tenant experience. Landlords and owners are willing to create tenant lounges, install new lighting and flooring, invest in elaborate decor and modern furniture, glass walls, frosted windows, custom murals, and high-tech digital directories. Each of those can cost far more than a few small changes to make a building more accessible to tenants and visitors. While everyone is downsizing and consolidating, and tenants have their pick of the litter when it comes to office space, I implore you all to consider this: a million dollars in renovations and redecoration means absolutely nothing if your tenants can’t access their office. It is worth your time and money to cater to the 10% of Chicagoans who otherwise couldn’t possibly consider your building. Today, I challenge you to sit in your rolling desk chair and attempt to get yourself to the closest bus stop without getting up. Do that just once, remembering that I, too, believed I would never need to worry about overcoming such a challenge, and then look me in the eye and tell me your building is optimized for your tenants. Go ahead, I dare you. 

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I’d like to shout out Access Living of Chicago, which is the leading nonprofit for disabled civil rights. Access Living provides advocacy, training, support, and education for individuals with disabilities and their families, as well as for employers who seek to improve their company’s accessibility initiatives. The organization’s website features a comprehensive guide to the CTA’s accessibility options, including free ride permits, paratransit resources, and other helpful information – most of which is nonexistent or extremely difficult to find on the City of Chicago’s website. Similarly, Devices 4 the Disabled, that’s with the number 4, accepts donations of mobility equipment, including walkers, wheelchairs, lifts, crutches, and scooters, each of which are given to individuals who otherwise could not afford them. 

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