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.
TAXIS FOR ALL CAMPAIGN
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."
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.