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What WalletHub's List of Disability Friendly Cities Gets Wrong

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

The personal finance website WalletHub recently released its list of the most disability-friendly cities in the United States. As a wheelchair travel blogger, I immediately clicked over to see the list and whether it lined up with my personal experiences. Immediately, I was disappointed. So often, these kinds of lists don’t line up with people’s real-world experiences visiting or living in a place. It reminded me of a lesson I learned a long time ago: a study can’t tell you where you should visit or where you should live, especially when you have a disability.

Any survey or study that attempts to rank disability friendliness is always going to run into one enormous limitation: people with disabilities can’t be lumped into one group whose needs are all the same. Our circumstances are too unique to rely on someone else’s idea of what will be livable for us. The phrase “people with disabilities” often gets used as shorthand for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices — but what about those who are blind, deaf, or have intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses? Each of these groups has different needs for physical accessibility, programs and services. What matters to one person may be irrelevant to another. The “best city” for a wheelchair user almost certainly won’t be the same as the “best city” for a Deaf ASL speaker. And beyond that, our individual needs and interests will affect our choices (or lack thereof) regarding our living situations. Someone with a rare disease may need to stay in the city with the best expert on their condition, even if that city is less than physically accessible or has a long waiting list for affordable housing.

Even with those inevitable limitations, the Wallethub report is terrible. It includes separate city rankings based on economy, health care, and quality of life, but it’s not clear to whom they apply. People with mobility conditions? Those with mental illness? Based on my own experiences as well as readily available public information, several of their rankings are flat-out wrong. I actually laughed when I saw the top ranking for “quality of life.” New York City? Are they joking? Out of all the cities I’ve visited, New York City has to be among the worst for accessibility.

I don’t mean to single out New York City here, but it’s the perfect example of why lists like this often get accessibility all wrong. The report ranks cities based on “walkability” to parks; while NYC has many parks, the city is currently being sued for failure to install and maintain sidewalk curb cuts. Walkable parks don’t matter if you can’t actually get to them. The report looks at the number of accessible restaurants per capita, but fails to consider what percentage of a city’s total restaurants are accessible. If City A has 50 restaurants, of which 49 are accessible, and City B has 100 restaurants, of which 52 are accessible, which location will provide a better quality of life? The former, of course. But finding an accessible place to eat in New York City requires planning ahead; many restaurants in the city are inaccessible, often due to simple barriers like a single step that have not been resolved due to lack of ADA enforcement. That is not the case in many other major U.S. cities.

I also find it extremely significant that public transportation wasn’t considered at all in this report. It’s essential to quality of life for those who don’t drive; how can you get to the accessible restaurant if there’s no bus or train service? Here again, New York City should come in near the bottom; the city is also being sued over its inaccessible subway system. Many other cities have made great strides in improving their mobility disability accessible public transportation, including Chicago and Boston, yet rank lower on the list.

When it comes to health care, Wallethub also gets it wrong. New York State expanded Medicaid, which should put NYC ahead of cities in many states that didn’t, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin (#3 for health care) and Overland Park, Kansas (#5 on health care and #1 overall) — yet it’s ranked last. Speaking of which, the study didn’t look at the percentage of providers that accept Medicaid, an essential consideration for many people with disabilities. It didn’t look at personal care attendant programs or Medicaid waiver waiting lists. Nor did it consider the availability of specialists and experts on rare and/or complex medical conditions.

All that said, the other top cities for quality of life according to Wallethub, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and San Diego are indeed accessible. While every major city has some issues with sidewalks, I’ve lived or spent lots of time in each of those cities and found them to be good-to-great for people with mobility disabilities. So why were other parts of the report so inaccurate?

Within the Wallethub article, you can click on photos of various disability experts to get their perspectives on what makes a city disability friendly. Every expert listed public transportation and availability of personal care attendant services as essential, yet neither of those factors were considered in the report’s rankings. That’s why you can’t trust so many of these lists.

There’s a popular saying in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us.” It means people with disabilities should be treated as equals and included in decisions that affect our lives. It’s a matter of human rights, but it’s also a matter of getting the facts right. Crunching numbers gathered by people who don’t actually know what accessibility is will not get an accurate result. You need people with personal experience to look at the numbers and say this is wrong. We missed something. As is, the Wallethub list is irresponsible research and should be pulled from publication.

So if this report and many others like it are bunk, how can we determine which places are most accessible for us when we plan a vacation or decide where to move for our health, education or career? For starters, we can look at studies done by people with disabilities and organizations that understand our needs. Chances are they will be a lot more accurate than a company whose primary focus is on personal finance and credit. If I want to fix my terrible credit, Wallethub would be a great resource. But when I want to find a travel destination with accessible restaurants, I want information from people who actually know what accessibility is.

I don’t want sites like Wallethub to ignore disability issues, but they need to understand that studies need context and people with real-world experience who can recognize when numbers don’t align with reality. Otherwise, they can cause real harm. While I don’t think anyone would base a decision on where to move solely on some website’s study, city governments love to use reports like these to extol their own virtues. Now New York City can say “We are ranked #1 in quality of life for people with disabilities,” and some people may believe that means something.

As a person with a disability, I rely a lot on the experiences of my peers when it comes to making decisions about accessibility and where to live. If I’m considering a move to, say, Denver (#3 on Wallethub’s overall ranking) I need to get to know people like me who live there. I need to do things like meet up with an online friend who lives there and also uses a power wheelchair. I need to find out that via Colorado Medicaid, she is able to pay her personal care attendants a much higher wage than where I live now. I also need to research real estate in the area and discover it’s been increasing in cost astronomically, so my current economic circumstances require me to save money before I can move there.

Numbers are important, but often stories matter more. Just look at the power of The Mighty. I’ve learned more from this website than I have WebMD, and I’m not just saying that because I work here. We need each other, not some clueless company’s report to find out how we can live our best life with a disability. So take reports like this with a grain of salt, and seek out people who can give you real answers on what you need to know. Then you can make the decision that’s right for you, and find your disability-friendly city.

Thinkstock photo by nick1803

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