Last week I had the pleasure of judging the Ms. Wheelchair America 2019 pageant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ms. Wheelchair America is an advocacy and leadership pageant that strives to build leaders within the disability community. The national Titleholder uses her reign to speak on a variety of topics that impact this community and is positioned to be a role model for young women with disabilities.
I’m sure you’re thinking, what does a pageant have to do with innovation?
First, Grand Rapids is a city similar to Rochester. The city is split by the Grand River and boasts a fully accessible riverway with access bridges that are easy to navigate and create connectivity in their downtown. One pedestrian bridge opens up to a small park that then leads to museums, restaurants, and more. Upon my return to Rochester, I excitedly shared photos and video to our planning director to give ideas and inspiration as we break ground on the Roc the Riverway Project. Currently, as a disabled person, our riverway does not connect me to downtown except at certain areas. I look forward to seeing how this project will not only be a benefit to the beautification of our city, but also to wheelchair users who require equitable access.
Secondly, many of the women who participated spoke of common themes: increasing wages and supports for caregivers like home health aides, improving employment opportunities for disabled, and making society inclusive for all. This dovetailed with our wage disparities report where we identified that 44% of home health aides are not self-sufficient. Furthermore, home health aides and their families make up 5% of those who are not self-sufficient, which translates to around 10,000 people. Currently, I am working on strategies that would help this portion of our population. Furthermore, by impacting the caregivers, we impact those for whom they care. As one woman so poignantly stated on being told to get a divorce in order to have her husband be her caregiver “this disease has taken so much for me, it will not take my husband, too”
As for employment opportunities for the disabled, I am writing a white paper in conjunction with the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative as well as the Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). This paper explores the barriers to employment and how poverty is still disproportionately high for this population in Rochester. Median earnings for disabled individuals are $14,450 whereas median earnings are $25,116 for nondisabled persons in Rochester. With these low earnings, one would accurately expect the poverty rate to also be disproportionately high: 42% for the disabled, comprising 22% of those in poverty. These facts, and more, will be the focus of a summit with former Senator Tom Harkin on October 4th, 2018. It will culminate in an action plan for Rochester moving forward.
Rochester is leading the charge for inclusion for disabled individuals. Mayor Warren’s Administration has focused on championing the disability community and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative has been committed to supporting the City’s efforts to move the needle on poverty in the disabled community. Rochester has a ways to go, but grand ideas are in play and a vision of the future is becoming our present.