For many of the state’s non-disabled residents, mobility and accessibility to New Hampshire’s wealth of resources — like businesses, parks, museums and roads — doesn’t require much thought. They decide what they want to do and where they want to go, and, generally, it’s easy enough to make it happen.
But according to the 2008 U.S. Census Bureau, about 11 percent, or 141,000, of New Hampshire residents report having a disability. For them, getting to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment, fostering a healthy social life, and even moving through a house or apartment can be a painstaking endeavor.
“New Hampshire is a small state, and our resources are limited,” said Guy Woodland, senior vice president of the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. “But I think we all work together to create a network of organizations to work with persons of disability. We do the best we can.”
In 1992, the federal government put the Americans with Disabilities Act into effect. The ADA recognized that historically, people with disabilities are often isolated and segregated. Since then, the state government and local advocacy and service organizations have been working toward universal accessibility — but the process hasn’t been without challenges. So while there have been many advances, the Granite State is still coming up short in some areas, from transportation to building accessibility.
Access to public transportation is the No. 1 problem facing the state’s disabled population, Woodland said. According to a UNH Survey Center Granite State Poll, no public transportation system exists for more than 80 percent of New Hampshire's communities.
“It's an issue that needs to be worked on,” Woodland said. “You may be able to access a bus in Manchester or Concord, but you can’t access one between Concord and Laconia. The intercity and intertown options just don’t exist.”
Before 2010, the state matched both rural and urban Federal Transit Administration funding, which amounted to about $180,000 — an amount that was at the bottom of the heap for what most state governments invest in public transportation systems, Woodland said.
But since 2010, zero state dollars have gone to funding public transportation options. Funds were not included in the final budget approved by the governor, despite being requested by the NHDOT, said Jeff Butler, NHDOT public transit administrator. Currently most funds used to operate transportation systems come only from local and federal sources.
Every two years, state authorities update what is known as the Ten-Year Transportation Improvement Plan, a long-term maintenance plan that encompasses state highways, railroads, transit, bicycles, pedestrians, and aeronautics programs. The latest plan does call for the DOT to reinstate some of the major transportation funds that were eliminated years ago.
“This year one message that was made clear was funding for transportation is grossly lacking,”said Fred Roberge, vice president of transportation for Easter Seals New Hampshire and chair of the state Coordinating Council for Community Transportation.
In areas of the state where there are bus services, accommodations are good, said Phyllis Brooks, transportation services coordinator at Granite State Independent Living, a nonprofit that assists people with acquiring the tools needed to live independently. All the bus services in the state’s larger cities, including Manchester, Nashua, Concord and Portsmouth, are accessible by wheelchair.
The problem lies in the the state’s more rural areas, where bus services have been cut or were never available in the first place. People with disabilities in these areas have difficulty getting to grocery stores and doctors’ appointments. That forces people with certain immobilizing disabilities into larger cities, Brooks said.
“If someone lives in Allenstown where they can afford to live because the tax rate might be better, there’s no service out there,” Brooks said. “It just lacks in that area. I really feel it lacks. There are so many little individual towns not serviced.”
State funding shortfalls have left it up to local nonprofits like Easter Seals and GSIL to offer as much transportation aid — like van services and reimbursements for drivers — as possible.
Making buildings accessible
“It’s hard to say how New Hampshire does with accessibility to buildings as a whole, because there are so many small entities involved,” said Aaron Ginsberg, staff attorney for the Disabilities Rights Center of New Hampshire.
Providing universal access to public and private buildings is an ongoing process. Some challenges are geographical. Certain states have more trouble than others, and New Hampshire is likely one of those, said Ginsberg. The state is full of old buildings that were not built with accessibility in mind. It’s also not flat like Kansas or Nebraska; a hilly landscape causes impediments on a topographical level. Winter also causes a whole host of problems.
“Just having snow and ice on the ground makes it harder even for people that don’t have mobility issues to move around,” Ginsberg said.
The state is required to follow ADA regulations when it comes to making public and private buildings accessible. The ADA regulations treat old buildings differently than new ones. All new construction (including modifications or alterations) must be fully compliant with ADA accessibility guidelines. When it comes to old buildings, accessibility renovations are required if they are not too costly, and for any serious renovation project, universal accessibility requirements must be met, Ginsberg said.
The older the city’s or town’s buildings, the less accessible it is, said Dean Davis, who has cerebral palsy and has lived in both Manchester and Concord.
“I think Concord is worse than Manchester because they have old buildings they have to work with, and some old buildings can’t be wheelchair accessible. Manchester is, to me, more wheelchair accessible than Concord.”
There are also regulations for the number of accessible parking spaces required — a touchy subject, Ginsberg said.
“You’ll often hear grumbling about accessible parking, and how unfair it is, and how they always see stickers for people who don't look disabled at all,” he said. “But a lot of times disabilities cannot be seen.”
In the past 20 years, as the population has aged, more and more of the state’s housing buildings have been constructed based on universal design and are either fully accessible or require very little modification, said Sarah Hopkins, independent living services manager at Granite State Independent Living.
“I don’t feel as though there is enough of a focus yet, but it’s definitely growing,” Hopkins said. “The bulk of the state’s housing stock is older, so it is not designed universally to fit a spectrum of physical abilities.”
When it comes to renovating older houses, common necessities include wider door frames, changes to electrical systems, ramp installations, and adjusted bathrooms and kitchens. Products for these renovations are getting to be more common in local building supply stores, but they can be costly.
“A ramp can be anywhere from $3,500 to $7,000, so it’s pretty expensive. If you’re on a limited income you need to really pull together resources to make that happen,” Hopkins said.
The population Hopkins works with are usually from lower income levels, she said. GSIL offers a number of programs to help them. Its Access Modification Program funds renovations ranging from ramp installations and adding stair gliders, to automatic door openers and tub cuts, which modify standard bathtubs for people with disabilities. They have also helped fund needs outside of the scope of home modifications, like paying for wheelchair batteries that are not covered by insurance.
Hopkins has found that across the state the funding resources for people who need help modifying their homes are decreasing. When clients come to GSIL for help, they are assigned a service coordinator whose first order of business is to seek out other funding for renovation processes before tapping in to GSIL’s funding resources. This could include eligibility for a home and community-based waivers, various types of medical insurance, and other smaller local grants. But there simply aren’t as many options as there used to be, she said.
“We have noticed a big change over the last three years,” she said. “We fund as a last-resort basis. … It has been getting harder and harder because of the change of the overall environment. Because of the economic situation, some funders are either closing down or finding they have limited funds to grant.”
GSIL’s access modification program tends to run out of funds before the end of the fiscal year in September, Hopkins said. By midsummer, they often have to delay projects until the next fiscal cycle in October.
Parks and rec roundup
“We want to make our parks available to everyone, basically to do the best we can” said Amy Bassett, spokesperson for the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation.
But there are some limitations because of natural features, she said. The accessibility of every park is different. When it comes to building accessible trails, the landscape of some terrain would have to be changed drastically.
Money is also an issue. The department, which is self-funded, has begun to make changes where it can as resources become available. Bringing facilities up to code is a big project, Bassett said, as some of the bathrooms and other buildings are many years old.
“Over the next couple years we’re going to be adding new bathhouses to some parks to replace some of those that are not where they should be,” she said.
Currently, the best way for people to check on the accommodations of state parks is to contact the park they would like to visit and ask officials about accessibility. Years ago, the department had a grid posted on its website that outlined accessibility levels for each state park. But that information became outdated, as ADA standards changed over time, and access to it was discontinued after Parks and Recreation created a new website, Bassett said.
New data may be available soon. The department is hoping to conduct an accessibility assessment within the next year for each state park. It will examine features like camping, pathways, picnic tables, facilities and check-in areas. The assessment will result in better information to the public and a blueprint for necessary improvements, Bassett said.
Sight impairment headway
The New Hampshire Association for the Blind’s advocacy committee is working on major issues facing people who are visually impaired.
Voting rights are crucial, said Guy Woodland of the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, who is also legally blind. For the past 10 years, the nonprofit has helped ensure access to voting facilities across the state by working with the Governor's Commission on Disability. Since 2006 there have been laws in place that require access to voting for blind people on a federal and state level for persons who are blind, and the state developed a telephone fax system that allows blind people to vote privately and independently.
“ was the first time I was able to vote privately and independently in my life, so there is a lot being done,” Woodland said.
At the municipal level, there’s still work to be done to ensure availability of the voting service, Woodland said. Last November, he went to vote at his local municipality election, but it did not offer a sight-impaired option.
And even with the technology in place, limited funding has made it difficult to educate the blind-and visually-impaired public about access to non-visual voting.
“It’s been word of mouth, and the Secretary of State has been doing some outreach, but it’s been limited. There is need for communication,” Woodland said.
In order for the system to work, the public buildings where elections are held must also be accessible for persons with disabilities. That may include putting contrast lines on steps so a person with limited vision can see them.
As seen in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Hippo.