At Gov. David Paterson’s April 16, 2009 press conference announcing the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was about to speak when music started playing in the back of the press gaggle. A photographer had bumped into reporter Michael Harris, turning on his audio recorder. Being a wheelchair user, Harris was unable to reach the machine to turn it off. Rather than continuing over the distraction—which was playing softly enough that many in the room could not hear it—or urging someone nearby to help him, Bloomberg got angry. He stopped, glared dramatically at Harris, and demanded, “Can we just stop this, and maybe we’ll start again?” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, leaned over to the mayor, and whispered, “He’s disabled.” “I understand that—he can still turn it off,” replied Bloomberg. As The New York Times reported, “It was almost a full 60 seconds — punctuated by sighing and glowering from Mr. Bloomberg and more than a few quizzical looks from members of the audience — before Mr. Harris shut the machine off.”
That incident placed on full display an attitude towards the disabled—insensitive and imperious—that advocates for disabled New Yorkers say their constituency has suffered throughout Bloomberg’s tenure. In looking at Bloomberg’s record on disability issues, a regular theme emerges: that he has simply not prioritized expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. Whenever a competing priority emerges, people with disabilities feel they lose out.
“The city’s position [on disability issues] is very defensive,” says Marvin Wasserman, former executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID). “It’s, ‘We’re doing the best we can. We’re not violating the law; we’re the experts. Screw you.'”
The disabled are disproportionately poor and unemployed. “In New York City, there is a tremendous employment gap between people with and without disabilities, and earnings lag behind for people with disabilities,” says Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY).
According to data from the Disability Statistics Center at Cornell, drawn from the 2011 American Community Survey, the estimated employment rate of the 425,781 people with disabilities in New York City ages 18-64 in 2011 was 28.4 percent. For New Yorkers without disabilities, it was 69.2 percent.
This dramatic disparity can also be found at the state and national level. But failure to address the inequality is the central disappointment of Bloomberg’s mayoralty for the disability community, and some advocates speculate that the economic limitations of the disabled partially explain Bloomberg’s attitude towards them.
“The man doesn’t have a lot of experience with people with disabilities,” says Edith Prentiss, vice-president for legislative affairs at Disabled in Action of Metro New York. “It’s not part of his milieu; it’s not part of his cohort. People with disabilities don’t jet off to Bermuda.”
Taxi battle angers advocates
In order to hold a job you must be able to get to it. One of the reasons disabled unemployment is so high is that the city’s transportation infrastructure remains largely impossible to navigate for people with mobility limitations. This is not entirely within the mayor’s control: Most subway stations are not wheelchair-accessible, but responsibility for that lies with the MTA, not City Hall. However, advocates say Bloomberg has not made improving city-controlled alternatives a priority.
Bloomberg passed on the opportunity to make taxis, a major component of New York’s transportation system, wheelchair accessible. City Hall heavily promoted the virtues of the “Taxi of Tomorrow.” But when selecting a design, Bloomberg refused entreaties from the disability community—and the city comptroller and public advocate, among others—to choose a wheelchair-accessible design. “Bloomberg was obstinate and adamant about not making accessible taxis,” says James Weissman, senior vice-president and general counsel for the United Spinal Association.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) thinks that their solution is the ideal compromise: 2,000 holders of new taxi medallions will have accessible cars, in addition to the 233 already in circulation. “It’s not an efficient way to go about it, making them all accessible,” says Alan Fromberg, a spokesman for the TLC. “It’s extremely costly. It costs an additional $15,000 to modify [the Taxi of Tomorrow] to wheelchair accessibility.”
Fromberg argues that the oft-cited analogy to London, where the entire taxi fleet is accessible, is inappropriate. “The London cab is not accessible to the U.S. standard,” he says. “The U.S. standard is more stringent. The ramp in London is much more steep, which is not legal in the United States.”
But disability advocates find Bloomberg’s explanations unconvincing. Bloomberg claimed that taxi drivers are opposed to accessible cabs because riders in them sit farther away from the driver, thus preventing the driver from establishing a rapport with the passenger to earn a bigger tip. As anyone who uses New York taxis knows, for the vast majority of rides, cabbies talk on their phones or listen to the radio. Even if Bloomberg’s theory were true, advocates say, it’s an offensively weak reason to deny disabled New Yorkers equal access to a vital mode of transportation. “Every time Bloomberg speaks on taxis, people with disabilities got more outraged,” says Wasserman.
Bloomberg also maintains that accessible cabs are less comfortable for non-disabled passengers. Disability advocates suspect the real issue is that cab drivers don’t want to pick up passengers with disabilities because they may take longer to enter and exit.
The federal government has filed suit against the city to require more accessible taxis in the fleet. “The taxi thing was insulting to people with disabilities,” says Weissman. “The governor supported [accessible taxis], the state legislature supported it, and Bloomberg opposed it and won.”
The TLC promises that their full slate of proposed reforms, such as the street hail system for livery car services, will improve accessibility. “While the legal challenge on the issue of whether street hails would infringe on the business of yellow cabs, and the budgetary aspect of selling an additional 2,000 wheelchair accessible medallions tend to get more attention, the fact that a full 20 percent of the [outer]-borough taxis must be accessible and available via hail and phone arrangement is an important and needed component to our efforts to advance accessibility,” writes Fromberg in an email.
But people with disabilities complain that current requirements are often unenforced. For example, car services are required to offer wheelchair-accessible automobiles. In practice, Prentiss says she often finds that they send cars that cannot accommodate a non-folding wheelchair such as hers. Fromberg says TLC “regularly enforce[s] violations when they are brought to our attention.”
There are myriad other impediments to traversing the city in a wheelchair or on crutches that Bloomberg has failed to address. Some disability advocates say that the city fails to enforce transportation laws that protect the disabled. In particular, the uptick in bicycling poses a risk, according to Prentiss. “When people have to attempt to cross a street and they are in the safe refuge it can be frightening when the bicycles swoop down,” she says. “And the bicycles are not following the regulations. The other day a bike came kicking ass in the wrong direction, jumping out at me in the dark with no light on. The bottom line is they’re not enforcing the law.”
While many pedestrians have complaints about their interactions with bikers (and drivers), the disabled are in a tougher position simply because it’s harder for them to jump out of the way.
The city’s Department of Transportation responds by noting that traffic fatalities are down in recent years. “The last five years recorded the fewest traffic fatalities in a century of record- keeping and … overall traffic fatalities have plunged by about 38 percent over the last decade,” writes Nicholas Mosquera of DOT in an email. Mosquera also points out that DOT is expanding various efforts to improve pedestrian safety, such as tactile strips to make it easier to identify curb cuts and pedestrian countdown signals to more than 1,900 intersections.
Tensions after Irene and Sandy revealed
People with disabilities don’t just have to worry about transportation, but whether their destination is navigable once they have arrived. Essential public facilities often remain inaccessible. New York’s recent experiences with hurricanes, for example, exposed shortcomings in accessibility for emergency shelters.
“In the wake of Irene we sued the city for lack of emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, going all the way back to 9/11 but highlighted by the experience with Irene,” recalls Wasserman. “They had evacuation on an inaccessible [to the visually impaired] Web site. Emergency shelters all had floors retarding access and inaccessible entrances and bathrooms. Volunteers didn’t have the necessary keys for accessible entrances. There were inaccessible cots.”
These sorts of problems with transportation, housing and emergency management for people with disabilities continued with Hurricane Sandy. “Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s statement at the time of the mandatory evacuation order that shelters were accessible, many were not in fact accessible,” writes Joan Peters, executive director of BCID, in an email to City Limits. “However, the lack of accessibility in the shelters is just one aspect of the larger failure of New York City to adequately plan for people with disabilities during an emergency.”