When I got accepted to the Boston University School of Public Health in the spring of 2012, I was excited and thrilled, but underneath those emotions was a layer of dread and anxiety. My acceptance meant that inevitably I would have to move from my home in rural Maine, to the big city. This of course was my intent when I applied to the graduate program at BUSPH, but the fact that the transition would now be a reality was nothing short of daunting.
I began telling people about the upcoming move for both my boyfriend and I, who use mobility devices to get around independently and would require fully accessible housing, and received varying reactions. Many people shared the same initial thought of, “What are you, crazy?” and we were told horror stories of the lack of accessibility within the city. I had spent months researching academic programs, and where I wanted to live, and although I had researched cities based on accessibility, but I refused to let my disability and physical challenges dictate the direction that my life would take.
We began the housing search feeling optimistic. Being from small, rural areas, we had what we thought was a reasonable budget and we had lots of connections in the disability community, both in the state of Massachusetts and nationally. What we found however, was that those things only got us so far. The university was supportive, but they had limited options for graduate students, and none that would be sufficient for two people who required accessibility.
In our early phases of searching, we started by looking specifically for just accessible apartments. We spent hours scouring Craig’s List only to find hundreds of old, cramped low budget apartments with flights of stairs for an entrance. There were many within our budget, and we discussed options of how we could “make it work,” through various accommodations or just being creative.
I called and emailed every listing that looked like something that could work for us. Nobody called me back, or responded to my inquiries. With our modest budget and request for a fully accessible unit, we were not a realtor’s dream. One broker had a conversation with me about a unit she was sure would be “perfect” but the conversation ended abruptly with a last interaction of her sending me a text message of just a smiley face emoticon.
Another woman called me back and we were able to arrange for a friend to do a video tour of the potential units she had in mind for us. Even from the short videos we could tell the apartments were not accessible, and the agent had no experience with any sort of disability. We knew it was a red flag when her first question to me in our conversation discussing wheelchair accessibility was, “Is one or two steps OK?”
Finally, I took my blinders off of just wanting so desperately to move to the city and came to a conclusion that this was unacceptable. We should not be forced to accept something that wouldn’t truly work for us when other people without disabilities had thousands of apartments to choose from. We were looking to make a move that would change our lives. We were both new at life in the city; we were going to be away from our immediate families, and taking on a lot of things for the first time. Wherever we decided to live, was where we were going to be for the good, the bad, and the very ugly. At the end of the day we did not want to get into our apartment and have to exert the last bit of our physical and emotional energy to do something simple like use the bathroom. This was going to be our HOME. I understood that going to grad school would mean that I would have to make sacrifices, but I was not willing to sacrifice my inclusion in society for the sake of finding housing.
It was at that point that I decided to reach out to our friends in the disability community. I contacted the regional Center for Independent Living and explained our situation, of how we were hoping to live independently in the city of Boston, and our tight timeline of needing to move in time for me to start classes at the end of the summer. The woman I spoke with was kind, but her response seemed automated as she began explaining the process for applying for subsidized housing. I kindly explained to her that I was not looking for that kind of support, simply buildings that were accessible. She seemed surprised at this request and was silent for a moment. It seemed odd to me, that in asking for LESS support, it could actually be more difficult of a request.
She referred us to a registry that listed all the accessible properties in Massachusetts and that could be searched based on various criteria such as location, budget, or specific accessibility features. However, in using this search engine, we only found buildings that were specifically for senior citizens, individuals that were of low- income, or were located a significant distance from the city, or a combination of all of those things. The more we narrowed our search, the fewer listings that resulted, and we started to realize that what we were looking for simply did not exist.
Just when I was actually considering deferring my educational offer, in a last attempt, I reached out to a particular property that looked promising. It was far beyond our original budget and considered a “luxury housing development,” but it was fully accessible, safe, in the ideal area, and had amenities that would actually make our lives easier instead of harder. Within days, the apartment was ours. It was a 500 square foot studio, so we knew space would be a challenge, but we saw no other options.
We have been living in Boston now for almost two years, and I have become even more passionate about the existing housing challenge. While many people living with disabilities are aware of the struggles to find accessible, equal opportunity housing in the city, I have learned that it is not necessarily common knowledge to those without disabilities. All students struggle to find housing in the city as more and more people move to Boston each year, but when I told my peers that we were given the option to live in a nursing home so I could attend school, they assumed I was joking.
People assume that all buildings have ramps and elevators, and bathrooms that can fit a wheelchair. Until they start looking at things through a different lens, they just believe the city works for everybody. The truth is that the housing options for people with disabilities are limited and segregated.
While the models that are available may work for many people, they should not be the only options. Housing is ultimately the foundation for all people to live healthy fulfilling lives and for people with disabilities, this component can be even more crucial. If people are forced to live in unsafe conditions or away from their peers just because they require accessibility, they will be even less likely to be able to achieve success in employment, education or other endeavors that would help them to become equal members of society.
With the thriving disability community in Boston, and the current political efforts to increase housing in the city, I do believe there is progress being made, but until we have everybody on board, and understand the level of this problem, there is still a long way to go!