Chicago has a lot to offer a lot of people. The tantalizing notion that there's always something to see and do in the windy City is enough to make even the newest traveler perk up in interest. Chicago thrives on many aspects, the elegant dining, the plush community brimming with life and fervor, the captivating theatrical performances and the interesting landmarks. That's not all that Chicago has to offer, however. Underneath the vast reasons why Chicago looks epic on the surface there are a lot of facets underneath that will tie together a memorable experience for everyone, including the disabled.
One of the things mentioned a lot by fellow disabled Chicagoans is the transportation accessibility. The City of Chicago has a variety of bus and train services thanks to the Chicago Transit Authority. The Chicago Transit Authority, also known as CTA, is the operator of mass transit within the City of Chicago, Illinois and some of its surrounding suburbs, including the trains of the Chicago 'L' and CTA bus service.
It isn't apparent, by looking at the website, how accessible this service is, especially to riders who are blind or visually impaired such as myself. The website doesn't list all the many different ways that the CTA bus and train services are accessible to a wide array of disabilities including deafness. Lifts and ramps on all buses are available for use upon request by anyone who has trouble with steps, even temporarily. All buses have audible announcements that announce main destination points along routs. As someone who is new to Chicago I found the soft spoken female announcement easy to understand, but not hear all the time, especially when there are quite a number of people on the bus. Luckily though the driver didn't mind clarifying the stops that I couldn't catch. The system seems to change in volume between buses however so in some cases driver dependability is inevitable.
For those who want to have other options though, there are two popular alternatives. Special door-to-door services are provided within Chicago and certain nearby suburbs to "ADA Paratransit Certified" customers. These services are now provided by Pace called Paratransit. The Taxi Access Program Allows "ADA Paratransit Certified" customers to travel in specially designated Chicago taxicabs at reduced rates anywhere in Chicago.
On the fixed routes by CTA, all the buses and trains have text displays at the front of the bus so that deaf riders can read main destinations and streets as they zip past. The text, I've been told, is a sharp red on a black background making the display easy to see. Not all drivers know sign language though, so if you're deaf or hard of hearing it would be best to plan your trip by either calling the CTA trip planner at 1-888-968-7282 or using their online trip planner.
Apart from epic public transportation the city swells with accessible events and venues, some of which were utterly eye-popping. I took a day to venture down to Navy Pier to see a play by Chicago Shakespeare Theater where I was astounded at how friendly the staff was. They were so open and helpful it made the Fairy Godmother look sinister. I was lucky enough to visit on a day where they had a play with audio description, a service for people with vision loss, such as myself, to hear what's going on the set with a headset listening to details of facial expressions, costumes, gestures, scene changes, and more, all via a trained describer in a sound proof booth. Audio description is only available for select plays throughout the year. I just happened to partake in Stephen Flaherty's and Lynn Ahrens' Seussical. That isn't the only accommodation they offer, however. A plethora of services lie waiting and ready to be utilize, such as braille playbooks, touch tour services, sign language interpreters for select plays, a flexible payment system for disabled Performing Arts lovers, wheelchair accommodating spaces, and much, much more
Chicago also has a booming hotel selection as well, complete with some hotels that really hit a grand slam with accessibility features. One of these happens to be the Hilton Hotel in Chicago. Staying there for two days, it became very easy to navigate around the hotel thanks to the very helpful staff that could make the Grinch give to charity. The lighting in the Hilton is casual so if you depend on a lot of light to get around the hotel it would be best to have someone guide you around the hotel. For my eyes the lighting presented challenges in the elevator where I fumbled along the floor buttons as if I were searching for gold inside of snow. The restaurants at Hilton have electronic menus available as well as braille menus. The highlight of Hilton accessibility, however, comes within the minor accessibility touches the hotel sprinkles here and there, such as chair lifts to hoist wheelchair bound people into the pools and hot-tub, braille on the snack machines, something I have never seen at other hotels, and an easy to memorize phone system just in case you happen to get lost while exploring the hotel, as I did.
As it turns out, my perceptions weren't just a tourist's amazement. There are a dozen other events and attractions in Chicago that have huge accessibility innovations. William (Bill) Bogdan, Disability Liaison at Illinois Secretary of State, says that the goal is to keep up with the accessibility innovations.
"The City of Chicago's goal is to make Chicago the "Most Accessible City in the Nation!", Bogdan said in an interview. "Chicago's O'Hare and Midway Airports have many accessibility features from accessible parking, shuttle buses to moving walkways that make it very easy for people with disabilities to travel."
Chicago's accessibility continues to grow and foster thanks to the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in part, because they collaborate with the Building Department to ensure accessibility compliance on all new construction projects. This is evident walking into some newer buildings compared to the older buildings. The commitment is clearly noticeable.
Even with all this commitment, there's still a bit of work that needs to be done in a few areas, such as with sidewalks around Chicago. Some sidewalks are heavily cracked and or half constructed, leaving a cane traveler such as myself cautiously treading in most areas. "Obviously as with any big city, budget concerns are always an issue," Bogdan said. Even though budget concerns are a huge issue the city is committed to making it better, even if it takes years to improve.
It's no question that Chicago has many attractions that are accessible for the disabled but it can often be hard to find notices of these accessible attractions in mainstream advertisements. Disabled people are rarely featured in ads and or fliers, on TV commercials showcasing Chicago, or even speaking publicly about the accessibility the city has to offer. It's happening but there isn't enough of accessibility promotion in mainstream media to really get the word out.
"In my opinion, the tourism industry can do a better job promoting accessibility of the city, by including persons with disabilities in ad campaigns, news articles or features and otherwise," Bogdan said.
Disabled Chicagoan's have many options to speak up about their thoughts and feelings regarding this gold-mind of an accessible city. The best places to contact regarding city accessibility are contact the Chicago Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, Chicago Chamber of Commerce or contact the venue directly with any accessibility concerns. People will definitely be happy to help. Many websites offer accessibility information as well, sometimes easily displayed on the homepage, sometimes not, but the commitment is here. The inclusion is pulsating with an open and fun vibe, carrying accessible venues in Chicago to increasingly inviting heights farther than the eye can see.