NKY's accessibility challenges: Sidewalks, housing and public transport - LINK nky (2024)

This story originally appeared in the May 17, 2024 edition of the LINK Reader. To get stories like this first, subscribe here.

Laurie Hamilton’s 12-year-old daughter, Kirin, primarily uses a wheelchair to get around.

Hamilton, a Covington resident, told LINK nky she is grateful for resources to which she has access to help Kirin, who attends Holmes Middle School. The Center for Independent Living Options helped her family find stable housing, and the teachers and aides at her school have been phenomenal, she said.

The sidewalks can make it difficult for Kirin to move through her community, though.

“One time we were pushing her down the sidewalk in her wheelchair, and the sidewalk condition was terrible,” Hamilton said. “She hit a bump, a strap fell off of her wheelchair, and she fell into the street. We had to take her to an emergency room, and she wound up having two black eyes.”

Rene Thompson, who works at the Center for Accessible Living and also uses a wheelchair, has also noted problems with Covington’s sidewalks. “There are areas of [Covington] where people in wheelchairs have to get out onto the street, putting their lives at risk,” she said.

Covington Assistant Public Works Director Bill Matteoli explained to LINK the work that the city does to enhance accessibility on streets and sidewalks.

“Covington’s Public Works Department is actively and continually investing in projects to ensure that Covington’s right of way areas are accessible,” Matteoli said. “In the last six fiscal years, Public Works has overseen the installation of 305 [Americans with Disabilities Act] ramps included as part of the city’s annual street resurfacing program.”

They install additional ramps, which can cost $2,000-$5,000 each, as part of streetscape projects and in response to alerts on problem areas.

Still, it’s a work in progress.

“The city has been wonderful in taking care of downtown,” Thompson said, “but we have issues anywhere we have those lovely, old trees. I adore them, but I don’t adore those lovely, old roots.”

Housing also can create obstacles for people with disabilities.

Rob Festenstein works at the Center for Independent Living Options, a nonprofit operating in Greater Cincinnati, including Northern Kentucky, that is mostly run by community members with disabilities. The organization “empowers people with disabilities to lead independent and inclusive lives in the community.”

Festenstein said people with disabilities face many of the same issues as the rest of Northern Kentucky amidst the current housing shortage.

“Affordable housing is harder to find,” Festeinstein said. “Inflation has increased, rents are going up, and our organization’s grant funds can only be stretched so far.”

The Center for Independent Living Options also collaborates with NorthKey and Welcome House to get their clients into stable homes.

There are challenges unique to people with disabilities searching for housing.

Historic parts of Northern Kentucky are home to some beautiful and celebrated old houses. However, many are over 100 years old. They were built decades before housing codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act required that houses be built according to minimum accessibility standards. This presents a major barrier to people with disabilities seeking housing.

Thompson, with the Center for Accessible Living, used to run the disability resource hotline in Northern Kentucky. “75% of the concerns we received were with accessible housing,” she said. “It didn’t matter the income level of the person.”

Thompson is also a dedicated advocate for people with disabilities. Part of her advocacy focuses on convincing builders and developers to make houses and apartments more accessible.

“Anything built or renovated since 1990 should be accessible,” Thompson said. “Note the word ‘should.’”

The reality, Thompson said, is that not every home is built or rebuilt to ADA standards, and not all builders feel incentivized to make places accessible. When that’s the case, it falls to those with disabilities or their families to make those changes and accommodations.

“Getting a ramp can be expensive,” Thompson said. “Most insurance companies won’t cover it…. If the person is renting, the owner has to approve and get the building permit. Occasionally, we’ll have a landlord refuse even though they are aware they are renting to a person with a disability.”

That’s where Thompson’s advocacy efforts come in. “We try to educate landlords and builders about the needs and benefits of making residences accessible.”

Part of that involves pointing out to developers that making homes accessible can have economic advantages.

“Builders need to understand that making homes that are accessible increases their desirability,” Thompson said. “I try to point out that the population is aging and this means more people will acquire disabilities.”

Going outside the River Cities

Even with sidewalk issues, Covington is a largely walkable city. Assuming the sidewalks can be safely traversed, people can get to many of the places they need via sidewalks. Other cities in Northern Kentucky that are in more suburban and rural areas face a different problem – a lack of sidewalks all together.

LINK spoke to Greg Clift, superintendent of Florence’s Infrastructure Support Services, and project manager Tom Gagnon about how Florence has been working to address that. The city is working with Boone County to improve sidewalk coverage and connectivity throughout the city. The most recent major project has been the addition of an accessible sidewalk on the Ky. 18 bridge over the interstate.

“Now people can get from the east side of the city to the west just by walking,” Clift said. “Just a couple of sidewalks have helped people get from residential to business areas.”

LINK asked Clift and Gagnon to explain how connectivity helps accessibility in the city. They said that their priority is creating a walkable city, which includes people with disabilities.

This is in line with the idea promoted by many urban planners that, while accessible sidewalks benefit everyone, they can specifically provide many opportunities to people with disabilities. Sidewalks allow people with disabilities to live independently by getting groceries, finding jobs, and participating in community events.

Clift and Gagnon said that, while the city works on improving walkability, they need feedback on sidewalks.

“We’re always open to ideas,” Clift said. “If people see a need for a sidewalk, that is something we can look into.”

Feedback from people with mobility disabilities or difficulties can be varied. People with differing levels of mobility require different things from their communities’ sidewalks.

“If the sidewalks are not even, sloped or cracked, it can be very difficult,” Kathleen Fedders, of Villa Hills, said. Fedders uses a cane when walking on certain terrains.

“With my issue, I require a very flat surface [to walk on]. I always have to look out for where I’m going,” Fedders said.

Additionally, there are many parts of Northern Kentucky which still lack sidewalk connectivity and coverage.

“Once you get in the rural areas, sidewalks are harder to come by,” said Aaaron Wagner, executive vice president of disability and program services at Easterseals Redwood, an organization based in Fort Mitchell.

Easterseals Redwood helps people navigate sidewalks and roads with disabilities. Their Assistive Technology Center helps people find modification and adaptability devices that allow them to move around their communities with greater independence.

Public transportation

According to the Kentucky Ohio Virginia Interstate Planning Commission, public transportation “provides an important service for seniors, youth, the economically disadvantaged and the disabled populations in our community.”

People with disabilities have higher rates of poverty, and senior citizens are at an increased risk of developing a disability. These factors, along with the relatively high prices of accessible personal vehicles, highlights the public transportation needs of the disabled community.

In Northern Kentucky, the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky – TANK – is the primary public transportation system in the region. LINK spoke with Gina Douthat, TANK’s general manager, to learn how they make their vehicles accessible.

TANK has fixed routes served by the 40-foot buses people are familiar with. “We provide ADA service and accessibility to our fixed route network,” Douthat said.

This includes a wheelchair seating area and a mechanized onboarding ramp which can be deployed by the driver in around 30 seconds.

Aaron Wagner with Easterseals Redwood explained the impact those fixed routes have on housing options for people with disabilities.

“Transportation gets expensive, and funds are limited,” Wagner said. “The bus lines restrict where people with disabilities can live. We try to find housing for our clients in more urban areas, like Covington and Fort Mitchell, where there are more bus lines.”

TANK also has a service specific to people with disabilities through the Regional Area Mobility Program. Through this program, TANK has organized “a door to door paratransit service available to disabled citizens who are unable to use TANK’s fixed route bus service.” There are eligibility requirements for this service, and those interested must submit an application to be considered for it. This includes a cognitive and physical abilities assessment.

“If you can use the fixed route network, we want you to use it,” Douthat said. “But, if you can’t, due to your disability or where you live, you could qualify.”

As TANK continues to improve this service, Douthat says the main feedback they receive is that people would like more service. “It’s challenging to get a trip at the exact time you want.”

Douthat said that ridership in this program is growing every year. She expects that, as the population gets older and people live longer, that trend will continue.

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NKY's accessibility challenges: Sidewalks, housing and public transport - LINK nky (2024)

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