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Top 20 Most Livable U.S. Cities for Wheelchair Users

Most Liveable U.S. Cities for Wheelchair UsersBy Sara Vigneri

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Every American deserves access to our country's cities-it's the law. But what does it really mean for a city to be accessible?

To get a better understanding of how cities in the U.S. are faring when it comes to accessible living, The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation looked at 100 of some of the largest cities in the United States and ranked them based on criteria that provides a snapshot of not just accessibility, but livability for people using wheelchairs.

What were the criteria?
First we looked at how hospitable a city's climate is for those living with paralysis and tried to avoid cities with extremes in temperature or snowfall. Then we ranked the cities based on their air quality, number of physicians, rehab specialists and rehab centers, accessible fitness and recreation facilities and paratransit systems.

We also looked to see if the city population contained large numbers of physically disabled people and whether those people have been able to get employment.

Lastly, we examined the age of the city (old building are harder to make accessible) and checked out the spending and eligibility requirements for Medicaid.

Still work to do
What we wound up with was a list of twenty cities that are on the right track for offering hospitable environments for people in wheelchairs. (See list below.)

This doesn't mean that these 20 cities, or any of the cities in this country, don't have some work to do. "We have raised the bar for what people who need access are entitled to," says Dot E. Nary, a research assistant and activist at The University of Kansas's Project Workout on Wheels. "Before the ADA, disability was viewed as a personal frailty but now people recognize that we shouldn't have to accept the things we've had to in the past." That means re-defining the word 'accessible' to truly represent access for everyone.

Getting around
Cities are required to make public transportation accessible to everyone, but there are still people who struggle to navigate our urban systems. "Even if a transit system is listed as accessible, it still may be very difficult to use it if you are in a wheelchair or other assistive device," says Yochai Eisenberg, an urban planner and Project Coordinator at the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "People tell us about the lifts on buses not working, or buses passing them by because they are in a wheelchair, or elevators at train stations being out of service for long periods."

Eisenberg is working on a Healthy Community Mapping System for the city of Chicago which maps out the 'actual' accessibility of buildings, fitness centers, sidewalks and stores. We've heard stories of people who struggle to cross busy urban streets due to high lips on supposedly 'accessible' sidewalk curbs, but projects like the Healthy Community Mapping System help people navigate urban streets with greater ease, something that cities across the country should consider adopting.

Emory Baldwin's Universal Design Craftsman

Photo Courtesy of Emory Baldwin's
Universal Design Craftsman

Housing for everyone
Universal Design emphasizes elements such as wide doorways and flat entryways to allow accessibility to everyone from the elderly to those in strollers or wheelchairs. When it comes to building or fixing housing structures in our cities Universal Design should be universally adopted.

It's not housing for the disabled, it's housing for everyone and cities like New Orleans have embraced Universal Design post-Katrina. But many developers are resistant to adopt it because they claim it costs more to special-order wider doors or to create flat entryways. "It's hard to convince builders to spend the money on Universal Design because when it is done well, it's invisible," says Cynthia Jones, Director of The Center for an Accessible Society. "How does one market something you can't see or show off? Developers can show you a granite countertop, but how do you show off an invisible feature like Universal Design?"

The key to reducing the cost of Universal Design is increasing its adoption -- the more we build with wider doors, the cheaper those doors become. And architects like Emory Baldwin understand that Universal Design needn't only be used for wheelchair access -- his award winning Craftsman style house in Seattle is a wonderful example of invisible Universal Design that anyone would feel comfortable living with.

Advocate and ask
Asking if a building is "accessible" isn't good enough -- learn to ask the right questions, like 'How wide are your doorways?' or 'Is the bathroom on the first floor?'. "There is no organized way to check whether something is truly accessible," says Nary, who has been in situations where her wheelchair couldn't fit into an accessible hotel room bathroom. "We have to be our own police when it comes to ADA compliance."

Independent Living Centers can be a lifeline for people who are moving or even visiting a new city-they can offer first-hand advice when it comes to navigating a city's public transportation system, finding a gym to join or housing referrals. To find a center in your city, go to www.independentliving.org or try googling the words "independent living center" with your city name.



How wheelchair livable is your city? What makes a city livable in your mind? Tell us!

The cities named are as follows, in ranked order:

1. Seattle, Wash.
2. Albuquerque, N.M.
3. Reno, Nev.
4. Denver, Colo.
5. Portland, Ore.
6. Chicago, Ill.
7. Birmingham, Ala.
8. Winston-Salem, N.C.
9. Orlando, Fla.
10. Lubbock, Texas
11. Miami, Fla.
12. Tampa, Fla.
13. Durham, N.C.
14. Fort Worth, Texas
15. Virginia Beach, Va.
16. Arlington, Texas
17. Baltimore, Md.
18. New Orleans, La.
19. Arlington, Va.
20. Atlanta, Ga.


Travel Center:
- Traveling with Your Wheelchair
- 14 travel tips from fellow travelers
- How to stay healthy on the road


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Access-Able Travel SourceHi, we are Bill and Carol Randall and we live in Colorado. We have always liked to travel and like many of you don't get to do it enough. Carol has MS and uses a wheelchair or scooter. This has given us some first hand experience with unpleasant surprises and access problems. That's why we started Access-Able Travel Source. We are an information service! We are not travel agents, just travelers. We think we have come up with a way to help fellow travelers.

Access to RecreationOffers some interesting products that may come in handy during your travels.

Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers AssociationCompanies that make elevators and lifts, stairway chairlifts and similar products.

ADA Accessibility GuidelinesADAAG is the design requirements for buildings and facilities as designated by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Learn all about the standards and guidelines with this website.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Wheelchair and Equipment Donations (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Accessible Exam Tables (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Medical Air Transportation (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Travel (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on New Injury Top 10 Questions (PDF)

Assistive Technology (AT) Resources: Proper fit of a wheelchairThe National Academy of Neuropsychology (NAN) has compiled a list of various Assistive Technology (AT) resource agencies around the nation, including resources on driver education, independent living, state agencies, mobility equipment and more.

AmtrakAmtrak enjoys a good reputation among travelers with disabilities, offers information on reservations, accessible coaches and sleeping accommodations, boarding, use of oxygen, etc.

Aquila Wheelchair CushionsThe Aquila Corporation offers a line of alternating pressure wheelchair cushions along with a two-zone static manual inflate cushion. These cushions are designed to meet pressure relief needs thereby helping to prevent pressure sores from developing down the road.

BrunoBruno Independent Living Aids has become known for its: power chairs, scooters, high quality stair lifts and Turning Automotive Seating.

ColoursFor people who like to think outside the box, check out the chairs put out by Colours In Motion.

Emerging HorizonsLots of information in this accessible travel magazine covering news, resources and travel tips.

Environmental Traveling CompanionsOffers outdoor adventures.

e.motionA standard manual wheelchair can get extra help with special rims containing small yet powerful motors.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)Information on laws regarding air travel for persons with disabilities.

Frog LegsFrog Legs Inc. makes a product that makes mobility a much smoother experience. A flexible hinge allows the castor wheels on wheelchairs to move more easily over bumps and obstacles thereby reducing the impact normally felt by the person seated. Think of them as shock absorbers for your wheelchair.

Mobility International USAThe National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange has programs to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange programs.

The Jay CushionSunrise Medical produces a cushion for wheelchairs called The Jay which is filled with a slow-flowing gel. The Jay addresses posture, skin and functional needs.

New-Horizons.orgProvides a guide to buying a home for people with disabilities. The title is: Accessible Homes and Accessible Home Modifications.

PermobilPermobil produces chairs ideal for those requiring the flexibility to constantly change positions. Technology and comfort combine to allow for active sitting.

Pride MobilityFor tight and precise control, Pride Mobility Products Corporation makes the very popular Jazzy Power Chairs.

Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago: Wheelchair Seating & PositioningHaving mobility is an important factor in being able to lead a productive and fulfilling life. If an individual is unable to walk, an appropriate mobility base and seating system are imperative to enhance the ability to interact and perform functional skills.

ROHOThe ROHO is a brand of cushion seats designed for protection and comfort. Each cushion is based on a support system of evenly distributed air.

The Spinal Cord Injury Information Network: Wheelchairs & SeatingInformation on seating and positioning.

The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH)A clearinghouse for accessible tourism information, dedicated to a barrier-free environment throughout the travel and tourism industry.

Spinlife.comOnline durable medical equipment (including wheelchairs and cushions).

SportaidOnline catalog for durable medical equipment.

ScootAround IncOffers scooter and wheelchair rentals in dozens of North America destinations

Special Needs GroupGlobal provider of special needs equipment rentals including mobility scooters, wheelchairs, powerchairs, oxygen, patient lifts, hospital beds and more. Equipment is delivered to cruises, hotels, convention centers and other requested locations.

TiLiteTitanium wheelchairs; lightweight and strong.

UCP Wheels for HumanityA non-profit organization that refurbishes donated wheelchairs and hand fits them to children and adults with disabilities in developing nations.

Wheelchairjunkie.comA resourceful and opinionated website owned and operated by self-described "power chair gonzo" Mark E. Smith, who also designs power chairs for Pride Mobility Products. Says Smith, "WheelchairJunkie.com is about mobility, not manufacturers, so the voices expressed here represent only users."

WheelchairNetA federally funded virtual community for people who have an interest in wheelchair technology.

Welner EnabledOffers the Welner Enabled Exam Table for the disabled and senior patient.

Wheelchair FoundationOver 100 million of the world's citizens today are deprived of mobility because of warfare, disease, disaster or advanced age. The wheelchairs they need simply to get across the street - or across the room - are out of reach. The Wheelchair Foundation believes that these people deserve the independence and dignity that comes with owning a wheelchair, regardless of their nationality. This is a nonprofit organization leading an international effort to deliver a wheelchair to every man, woman and child in the world who needs one. For those individuals, the Wheelchair Foundation offers freedom, self-reliance, mobility and hope.

Whirlwind Wheelchair InternationalWhirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI) is the communications hub of the Whirlwind Wheelchair Network of independent wheelchair-producing workshops in developing countries. Founded in 1989 as the Wheeled Mobility Center (WMC), WWI's primary mission is 1) to teach wheelchair riders in developing countries to design, build, and repair their own wheelchairs; 2) to enable rider/builders to create businesses for the manufacture and distribution of wheelchairs to others; and 3) to foster the ever-widening Whirlwind Network of rider/builders around the world who exchange ideas for the continuous improvement of wheelchair design.

World Wide Wheelchairs & Used Medical EquipmentScott Dier began this company in July 1998. He wanted to sell a hearing aid on the Internet. Then people started asking about wheelchairs and other medical equipment! Mr. Dier then proceeded to look for equipment around North America and found many items available. World Wide Wheelchairs exploded into a company that was needed throughout the world! They have sent medical equipment and wheelchairs to India, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Japan, Mexico, Jamaica, Canada, England, Brazil and all over the U.S. and the U.S. Military.

Wheelchair AccessoriesClick on this link to see how you can accessorize your chair or scooter and improve matters. Backpacks, cupholders, trays, canopies and umbrellas are just a few examples.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.