Wheelchair ramps represent one of the most common service gaps that Oneida County residents face.

One in ten non-institutionalized U.S. adults have mobility challenges (Journal of General Internal Medicine). When someone has a mobility challenge – whether it be due to a lifelong medical condition, a recent accident, the natural effect of aging, etc. – they need to learn how to navigate their life in a community that hasn’t been built with them in mind. A ramp is not a barrier for a person without mobility challenges, but for many, steps are an access barrier. Wheelchair ramps don’t only provide access to people in wheelchairs either; they’re easier for people with arthritis, heart issues, respiratory illness, etc.

Inaccessibility issues can come up in community spaces, but seniors and people with disabilities sometimes have to question whether they can safely move in and out of their own home.

When the mobility challenge is new, this may pose a threat to the home that they’ve invested in and made memories in for years, the home they envisioned spending the rest of their lives in. Moving out of a forever home exchanges one costly problem for another; the accessibility requirements greatly limit their housing options and put urgency on an already-strained search process.

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

When someone is a renter, this access barrier comes up again and again throughout their lifetime. Low-income individuals, who are more likely to be hindered by the modification costs, are also more likely to be renters. Landlords of small residential buildings are unlikely to take on any of the modification costs, they may not want modifications to the home at all, and if the modifications are permitted, there will likely be ramp un-installment and home repair costs when the resident moves. The few already-accessible apartment complexes that are in a given area can have waiting lists ranging from 6 months to five years.

The few nonprofits that can contribute to this cause will only help homeowners, not renters. For homeowners, there are likely years-long waiting lists to get a wheelchair ramp built, and temporary ramp borrowing programs have limited resources. Due to the high need of wheelchair ramps, there are strict eligibility requirements for nonprofit services to prioritize those in the most need, and many people fall through the cracks.

Wheelchair ramps themselves and the related costs (permits, labor, etc.) can easily cost someone thousands of dollars. That’s one reason why wheelchair ramp inquiries are one of the most common that Oneida County nonprofits receive. 

Those in need are directed to check with their insurance provider. Most insurances won’t cover this cost, claiming it’s not a necessity for someone to safely go in and out of their home, claiming that these physical conditions are not medically relevant. No one wants to be responsible for wheelchair ramps, and those who cannot afford to buy, rent, or build one may result to dangerous, makeshift “solutions” like placing slick, fragile plywood over their steep front steps. Maybe they resolve to rarely go outside, isolating themselves from our community.

So what can an engaged representative do to help this issue? 

  • Advocate that Medicaid, nationwide, requires and expands coverage for wheelchair ramps.
  • Allocate funds to programs that build and loan wheelchair ramps.
  • Create incentives for builders and housing providers to incorporate wheelchair ramps into their properties before it’s “necessary”. Normalize wheelchair ramps. Think of ways to celebrate them and make them beautiful so people can appreciate them rather than see them as a devaluing asset of homes. 
  • Connect renters to resources that can put them on an achievable, affordable path to homeownership so they have autonomy and stability in meeting their accessibility needs.
  • Facilitate insurance coverage for nonprofits and their volunteers so they’re more likely to provide this service without fear of liability claims (general, theft, personal injury, and equipment damage liability insurance for during and after construction).
  • Take a census of people with mobility challenges. While people are polled for their general disability status, without knowing the nature and prevalence of the specific conditions, informed decisions cannot be made on how to meet individuals’ needs. 
  • Destigmatize the narrative around aging and disability. Create a comfortable environment for people to have these difficult discussions, empower them with knowledge, and enable access to resources so they can be prepared to take on mobility changes/challenges. Get people thinking about the unmet needs of these populations so they’re inspired to help. Remind everyone that they could have a mobility impairment at some point in their life (if they don’t already have one). 
  • Talk to people with mobility challenges, nonprofits, insurance providers, housing providers, and all other key players to learn more.

I look forward to hearing your response on how you plan to meet the needs of not only seniors and people with disabilities but of all others; we all hope to age with ease, and regardless of the circumstances that led to someone’s mobility challenges, we all wish to readily receive the support of the community that we’ve invested so much into.

Please feel free to copy, sign, personalize, and take inspiration from these outreach letters so that you can contribute your voice on the given topic and mobilize our representatives to act on our behalf. If you don’t know who your representatives are, go here: whoaremyrepresentatives.org

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