Providence was ranked as one of the worst cities to live in for people with disabilities out of the 150 most populated cities in the United States, according to a recent study published by WalletHub that analyzed each city’s economic environment, quality of life and healthcare access. Out of all 182 cities surveyed in the study, including those not among the 150 most populated, Providence placed at 180.
“Rhode Island is a small state with a history of budgetary challenges and not allocating enough resources to provide services in order to fully support people living with disabilities,” said Lecturer in Language Studies Tim Riker, who teaches American Sign Language. “If you’re looking to get services in terms of accessibility, you’re going to face barriers.”
When Riker, who is deaf, found out that Providence was ranked so low for people with disabilities, he said he was disappointed but not surprised. Compared with other states in which Riker has lived, including Maryland, California and Massachusetts, Rhode Island “seemed far behind.”
Quality of life
Providence ranked 90th out of 182 cities in the “quality of life” category of WalletHub’s study, which looks at graduation rates for individuals with disabilities, the number of wheelchair-accessible restaurants and entertainment establishments and more.
Providence’s large number of historic buildings hinders accessibility, said Bob Cooper, the executive secretary of the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities. Additionally, though Rhode Island’s public transportation system is wheelchair accessible, it only covers part of the state.
“A lot of the infrastructure is old,” Cooper said. “Some of the newer infrastructure is a little bit better, but there’s still problems.”
The newly constructed Providence Pedestrian Bridge, for example, does not comply with the accessibility standards passed in 1968. “There was a failure by the State Department of Transportation … to ensure that it was up to code before they approved it for construction,” Cooper said.
Though the Americans with Disabilities Act requires states to ensure that their buildings are accessible, “the law doesn’t have teeth to it,” said Senior Teaching Associate in Behavioral and Social Sciences Sarah Skeels, who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury. She added that “the onus is on me to report” inaccessible buildings so the state will investigate and make sure they are fixed.
All newly constructed or renovated buildings must comply with the state’s building codes, said Paul DePace, who chairs the Rhode Island Building Code Standards Committee. Developers can apply for an exception, but that is often only granted for old buildings, for which renovating for modern accessibility would pose difficulties. “I’ve never seen an exception granted for financial purposes,” DePace said.
Providence is ranked 179th out of 182 cities for health care in WalletHub’s study, based on factors such as the cost of a doctor’s visit and the number of physicians and occupational therapists per capita.
People with disabilities often face more challenges in securing equitable health care, Riker said. For instance, deaf individuals in Rhode Island often have to find their own interpreter for medical appointments, despite the fact that the ADA mandates that medical offices provide ASL interpreters for those who need them. There is a limited pool of available interpreters in Rhode Island, and there are even fewer who can translate medical terminology, according to Riker.
“Discrimination is a very common experience, and sometimes doctors will refuse to provide an interpreter, and then you have to find somewhere else to go,” Riker said. “When a person is searching for a place that will provide the access they need, that could cause more delays” to one’s medical care.
Aside from the difficulty in scheduling interpreters, hospitals are generally not designed with accessibility in mind, said Oce Harrison, project director of the New England ADA Center, which focuses on educating people on their rights under the ADA. According to Harrison, hospitals are “built for (abled) people who work there” more than they are for visitors and patients with disabilities.
Providence comes in at 177th out of 182 cities in WalletHub’s “economy” ranking, which examines factors such as the cost of living and the median incomes of people with disabilities.
Out of all 50 states, Rhode Island ranked 47th in disability employment rate, according to a 2018 study by RespectAbility. This was largely due to a 2014 settlement between Rhode Island and the U.S. Department of Justice that shut down shelter workshops where disabled employees were paid less than minimum wage. But by 2019, the state had jumped to 19th in employment for individuals with disabilities following Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative, which added 7,758 jobs for people with disabilities. The Rhode Island House of Representatives officially repealed a law that allowed disabled workers to be paid subminimum wages in February 2020.
The unemployment problem for people with disabilities is exacerbated because Rhode Island already has a comparatively high unemployment rate, Cooper said. “If you start off in an area which has an above-average unemployment rate, and you add on to adjust the difficulties getting over bias towards employing folks with disabilities, it just adds to the problem,” he said. Large employers are especially “unaware” of how to create pathways to employment for people with disabilities, Riker said. In his time teaching at Brown, for example, Riker said he has not met a tenure-track faculty member who identifies as having a disability; rather, the faculty members with disabilities he has met have been lecturers with short-term contracts.
The University does not publicly publish data on the number of employees with disabilities. “There is no obligation for any employee, whether faculty or staff, to disclose a disability to the University,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “While we evaluate and work with employees on accommodation requests routinely, we do not post public-facing data on this in regard to employees.”
Individuals with disabilities often also have a harder time finding housing suited to their needs.
Rhode Island is one of seven states that has not implemented an Olmstead Plan, a legacy of a 1999 Supreme Court case that requires states to end avoidable segregation of individuals with disabilities through institutionalization, and instead ensure that they have access to services they need in the most integrated setting possible, according to the ADA website.
These services include access to affordable and accessible housing options as well as access to necessary modes of transportation, educational or workplace support and assistive technology.
“It’s all of these resources that come together to allow a person who is isolated at home or in an institution to be able to go back into the community and live a fuller, richer life and have the things that you and I take for granted,” said Laurie-Marie Pisciotta, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island.
Pisciotta suggested that funding for affordable housing could come from hospitals’ community benefits, which are funds used to support a community need as mandated by the ADA. They are currently directed towards educational programs on topics such as nutrition and the dangers of smoking.
Alternatively, Pisciotta said that the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals is considering closing the wing of Eleanor Slater Hospital that houses long-term patients. Roughly half of the $788 million Rhode Island would save from the closure should be put toward establishing an Olmstead Plan, she added.
MHARI has been pushing for the implementation of an Olmstead Plan at the state level, and Pisciotta hopes that the plan can come from an executive order from the governor’s office. MHARI started an Olmstead campaign several months ago and, as of December, was working on a policy proposal.
“We do have funding shortfalls (in Rhode Island), but that’s true of many states,” Pisciotta said. “Budget shortfalls and bureaucracy don’t trump civil rights for people with disabilities.”