TUNNEL VISION: LOCAL ACTIVIST
FIGHTS FOR DISABLED RIDERS

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Michael Harris looks the picture of a man on the rise. He consistently sports sharp suits, spruced up with cuff links, a vest or a bright red tie and matching pocket-handkerchief. With his BlackBerry always in reach, he responds swiftly to the hundreds of questions and complaints he receives each week.

As founder of the Disabled Riders Coalition, an advocacy group that hounds the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the 21-year-old Manhattanville College senior spends up to 20 hours a week just answering messages and then trying to rectify problems that unfairly impact disabled riders like himself.

“Getting around New York City, as great a city as it is, is not exactly easy,” said Harris, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. “The bottom line is that to get [the MTA] to respond, unfortunately, you have to publicly embarrass them.”

The nonprofit Disabled Riders Coalition, which Harris started in the fall of 2004, aggressively campaigns for better access and tries to hold the MTA responsible for its inconveniences. As its leader, Harris routinely testifies at hearings and sends the MTA photos of malfunctioning stations. He also writes press releases and stages conferences to denounce moves like the transit workers’ strike last December or to draw attention to broken elevators and station entrances.

“Michael is an amazing breath of fresh air in New York City,” said Alexander Wood, executive director of the Disabilities Network of New York City. “It’s great to see someone who’s still in college, but really engaged and active in city politics.”

Harris has been in a motorized wheelchair since he was 9 years old and suffers from dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes painful muscle spasms. He founded the coalition to encourage disabled New Yorkers to use public transportation and become a more visible force. To help them, it posts advisories about breakdowns and disruptions on its website: www.disabledriders.org.

“We want to have the Transit Authority see that we’re using the transit system,” Harris said.

As of December, 67 of the city’s 468 subway stations were accessible, according to John Gaito, an official in the MTA’s Americans with Disabilities Act compliance office, who often hears from Harris.

“Unfortunately, some of the things they are advising–like for every station in the system, some of which are over 100 years old, to be accessible–are very, very difficult,” Gaito said. “Some are just outright not doable without millions of dollars.”

But Harris isn’t easily deterred. In October 2005, the group filed a federal lawsuit against the MTA for not promptly repairing three elevators at the West 4th Street subway station, as the Americans with Disabilities Act requires. They had been out of service on and off for six months. It was settled out of court, and though Harris couldn’t describe the terms, he said one elevator was repaired within two weeks and the others by last December. Meanwhile, the MTA started making announcements and posting more signs about the breakdowns.

The coalition has also tackled problems with subway AutoGates, the entrances for special-needs passengers, which accept a different type of transit pass. The gates jam frequently because people with standard MetroCards try to use them, Harris said. To stop them, employees often cover the slots with duct tape, which also blocks disabled passengers.

That issue is finally improving, Harris said. In response to their complaints, the MTA started hanging signs explaining that the entrances don’t take MetroCards and warning employees against taping the slots.

The coalition has expanded steadily in its first year and gained notoriety in the metropolitan area. It has received about 2,600 complaints and questions, Harris said, some of which were referred from the offices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Governor George Pataki.

“I just hope he can maintain his focus,” Wood said of Harris. “He’s so ambitious, he’s really a one-man band out there.”

But Harris has no intention of slowing down. When scheduling next semester’s classes, he made sure they didn’t conflict with the MTA’s calendar. “I can’t recall the last time I missed an MTA meeting,” he said.

—Sara Stefanini
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