Civil Rights
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The Topic
Civil rights refers to the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, and to the laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, and many other criteria.
The Context
New York is the most diverse city on the planet, home to people of every race, nationality, language group, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, and to some of the world's premiere human rights groups. There have been intense intergroup conflicts throughout the city's history, from the Draft Riots of 1863 to the Crown Heights riots of 1992. But more amazing is how well such varied peoples have gotten along for hundreds of years.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created a Committee on Unity after some race riots in 1943, in order "to make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality." Eventually, the city and state governments passed laws against discrimination and established agencies to enforce them.

The Reporter
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Civil Rights.

by Andy Humm

The Disabled

There are about 1.8 million people with disabilities in New York City, according to the 2000 census. While things have changed since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, some of these disabled New Yorkers believe that too much remains inaccessible to them, and they are organizing in unprecedented ways. Their focus is on campaigns to improve transportation in a town that is notoriously unfriendly to those with disabilities. They are also trying to secure housing and workplaces that are more easily accessible, and to make the health care system more responsive to their special needs.


Some 40 American cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, have accessible taxis. All of London's cabs can accommodate wheelchairs. By contrast, New York City's 12,000 cabs include only five that are accessible to wheelchairs. The "Taxis for All" Campaign is an effort to convince the city to make new yellow cabs and livery car services able to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs. Terry Moakley, associate director of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association and chair of the campaign, said that the Taxi and Limousine Commission was resistant, wanting to wait until major auto manufacturers built accessible vans. But Moakley says that it can be done right now at a cost of about $6,000 a cab. And Dan Wilson, spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, who has been gathering signatures on a petition as part of the Taxis for All Campaign, said that this could be paid for with some of the money from the sale of new taxi medallions.

The city came up with regulations to begin accommodating the disabled, but September 11th delayed their enforcement, according to Matthew Daus, the chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. "Our plan is to enforce these rules by the end of this year," he says. He called the for-hire vehicle industry with its radio dispatch system "the logical starting point." Under the proposal, a livery service wouldn't have to make every vehicle accessible, but would have to be able to secure an accessible car for anyone who needs one. Some of this could be done through subcontracting. The campaign emphasizes that they are talking about new vehicles. "We're not trying to burden someone with an existing vehicle," says Moakley


While disability rights activists credit the city for making all of its city buses accessible (though not all private ones), the subway system is almost totally inaccessible. Many of the disabled, and not just those in wheelchairs, depend upon the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Access-a-Ride system, where for $1.50 a van will pick the qualified user up and transport them.

The City Council Transportation Committee has held hearings both on the need for accessible taxis and on the Access-a-Ride. Those dependent on the Access-a-Ride service testified to tremendous difficulty in arranging for rides, long waits for pick-ups, and unsafe and uncomfortable vans. "The MTA should be embarrassed," said William Danielson, a businessman who uses crutches to get around. Frustrated users (those not in wheelchairs) often end up having to call a cab to get to their destinations at great personal expense.

"We will be more efficient," promised Howard Ende, Vice-President of the Metropolitan Transit Authority for Paratransit, who said they will be aided with a new computerized scheduling system. "I know there are a lot of people who are dissatisfied, but I also know of satisfied customers."

Getting around New York is the biggest issue for the disabled, "because if you don't have transportation you can't access services or go to your job," said Lisa Geeson, of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.

Freida Zames of Disabled in Action is concerned about the new ferries that are planned. "The ones now are not accessible," she said, "and it could be a wonderful way for disabled people to travel to the different boroughs, Jersey, and Connecticut."


There are other issues besides transportation. Geeson cited the need for the Board of Elections to make voting booths accessible to the visually impaired, and for the Department of Buildings to enforce the accessible buildings code; Zames said that there "is not enough affordable, accessible housing, nor is it integrated. They keep wanting to put us in ghettoes."

Zames also said her group is focusing on the rebuilding of downtown and the preparations for the potential 2012 Olympics in the city to "see that it is all done in compliance with state, federal, and local disability laws."

Alexander Wood, executive director of the Disabilities Network of New York City, and Nancy Miller from Visions Services for the Blind, called on the Department of Employment to involve more youth with disabilities in the summer employment program.

A new coalition is working to make sure that the efforts to incorporate people with disabilities into their communities become a reality - in other words, that the programs get funded. The New York City Disability Budget and Policy Coalition was formed this year to "achieve fiscal equity for disability-related programs and issues in the New York City budget."

How responsive will city government be to the various campaigns? Several members of the City Council are sponsoring some of them from their offices. As for the Bloomberg administration, Wood and Miller were delighted to have had a meeting with Employment Commissioner Betty Wu. "She was wonderful," Wood said "This is the first time [in 30 years] I had a commissioner meet with me on disability issues."

Zames is less sanguine about the new administration. "We're having a hard time reaching Bloomberg," she said. "But his manner is better than Giuliani's. We were never able to deal with Giuliani."

Recommended Links:

  • New York City Commission on Human Rights - 40 Rector Street, New York, NY 10006; (212) 306-7500 The Commission enforces the City's Human Rights Law which prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, color, age, national origin, alienage orcitizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation, status as a victim of domestic violence, disability (including HIV/AIDS relatedconditions), lawful occupation, arrest or conviction record, marital status, family status, and retaliation. The Law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, as well as bias-related harassment.
  • New York State Division of Human Rights - One Fordham Plaza, 4th Floor, Bronx, New York 10458; (718) 741-8400 The State Division of Human Rights serves as an alternative to the court system for resolving discrimination claims--in employment, in places of public accommodation, resort or amusement, in educational institutions, in commercial space and in credit transactions and to take other actions against discrimination. The agency is responsible for developing civil rights legislation and policy for the State of New York, and for promoting awaren essof civil rights issues and remedies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004 "The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is our nation's guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
  • Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson Street, 12th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 966-5932 is "the first organization on the east coast to defend and promote the legal rights of Asian Americans through litigation, legal advocacy, community education, leadership development and the position of free legal assistance to low-income and immigrant Asian Americans."
  • Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor, New York, NY 10118-3299 USA; (212) 290-4700 "Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice."
  • Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund - 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3904; (212) 809-8585 The nation's oldest and largest legal organization working for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-1900 "Committed to staying on the cutting edge of the movement for racial justice."
  • National Organization for Women/NYC - 150 W. 28th St., #304, New York, NY 10001; (212) 627-9895 NOW/NYC "works towards equality for women with a focus on several key issues: battling racism and violence against women, guaranteeing reproductive rights, advocating lesbian and bisexual rights, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and generally working towards economic, educational, and political equity. The chapter provides educational outreach and takes part in political lobbying, zap actions and demonstrations in response to various social situations. The Service Fund of NOW-NYC also offers referrals, support groups, and clinics for women in need."
  • New York Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004; (212) 344-3005 The NYCLU is "a statewide organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of New Yorkers' civil liberties as enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York."
  • Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., 4th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-3360 "Through litigation, policy analysis and education, the Puerto Rican Lega lDefense and Education Fund works to secure, promote and protect the civil and human rights of the Puerto Rican and wider Latino community."

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