Islanders need to come together to support neighbors, advocate for greater accessibility, and push back against the dismantling of affordable housing that makes it increasingly difficult for residents with disabilities to call Roosevelt Island home, say the speakers assembled to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
More than 120 people packed the Roosevelt Island Senior Center on September 29 to hear City officials and local residents discuss not only national progress made, but also the many challenges that still remain for people with disabilities citywide and on the Island.
The event was hosted by the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA) in partnership with the Carter Burden Center for the Aging.
The Mayor’s Office
Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) and one of the headlining speakers, said his task is to make life easier for New York’s disabled population. Calise, a native New Yorker, sustained a spinal cord injury in 1994 and is himself in a wheelchair. He outlined the mayor’s Accessible NYC initiative. Making local transportation easier is a huge priority for him.
“How do we get people around the City? You’re fortunate enough here to have an accessible subway stop, but not a lot of people in New York have an accessible subway stop. Right now we have a lot of development going on around the City. We need to find a way to incentivize those developers to build more elevators. It’s important. Of the [City’s] 465 subway stations, only 84 are accessible. We need more. That isn’t good enough for people with disabilities.”
Calise sees the Island’s growth as an opportunity. “I love the Island. It’s beautiful and it’s getting more and more crowded. The good thing about when things get crowded – and especially when new buildings go up – everything becomes more and more accessible.”
Many in the audience spoke out about problems they’d experienced with Access-A-Ride, the city’s paratransit system.
“Our problem is not Access-A-Ride coming late,” said RIDA President Jim Bates. “It’s Access-A-Ride not coming at all.”
RIDA Vice President Nancy Brown detailed multiple incidents where she’d found herself stranded far from home.
“I called [Access-A-Ride] from Coney Island and they said, ‘We don’t have anyone in your area,’ ” recounted Brown. She was diagnosed with polio as a child and uses a ventilator wheelchair. “[Access-A-Ride] left me at Walmart because they said my cart was too heavy but it wasn’t heavy. They said they were going to send someone else and I waited three and a half hours.”
“That’s unacceptable,” Calise said. He offered to try to set up a forum with Access-A-Ride to discuss the problems.
“We work with Access-A-Ride. I hear those grunts and moans and I understand. It’s a challenge for anybody to get around this city in a vehicle,” said Calise. “If you think about it, I challenge anyone to go from the Bronx to Midtown during rush hour and see how long it takes you. Access-A-Ride makes 25,000 trips a day. It’s a shared ride system. They’re working to improve. And we’re working with them, finding ways to use wheelchair-accessible cabs to get around, trying to figure out how we do that.”
As part of Accessible NYC, 50% of cabs will be accessible by 2020. Calise said there are 1,000 accessible green cabs on the street now. “We are working on an accessible dispatch for all of the boroughs so everyone can get an accessible taxi in a more efficient way.”
Several speakers also addressed the issue of affordable housing.
Roosevelt Island Historical Society President Judy Berdy called out the new regime of developers for valuing profit margins over the Island’s legacy of providing affordable housing for people with disabilities.
“When they built Roosevelt Island, they thought about a community that was inclusive,” said Berdy. “This was 1970. There was no ADA. There was no consideration of a person being in a wheelchair or [having] any other disability. Yet over 50 apartments were set aside on this Island for people with disabilities. Patients were recruited from the hospitals to come check out the apartments, tell [the architects] what was wrong with the design, and eventually move to the community.
“Mostly young couples came together [from one of the hospitals] and moved to our community and became part of our community,” said Berdy. “That is the thing that we will never have again because the rents here are no longer subsidized. The sad thing is, you won’t recreate Roosevelt Island. We were just a wonderful bubble. And unfortunately, there were lots of holes in the bubble; it’s now coming apart.”
The State of Island Housing
Island internist Dr. Jack Resnick expressed regret over the current state of housing and the exit of Roosevelt Landings and other Island buildings from the Mitchell-Lama affordable-housing program.
“A lot of these people are my patients,” said Resnick. “I spend half my time on house calls with many of the people in this room. I have been really blessed to get to do that. It’s been an amazing 20 years. The idea that this incredible one-of-a-kind experiment in the country should be allowed to disappear is just heartbreaking.
“[Disabled] People here live longer, they’re happier, and they stay out of hospitals,” said Resnick.
This wasn’t the first time Resnick has spoken out about this issue. In a letter to The New York Times last year, Resnick wrote, “Keeping the frail, elderly, and disabled at home and out of hospitals and nursing homes saves money and keeps them healthier. An Obamacare three-year demonstration project – Independence at Home – which is now ending, will show that Medicare saves over $5,000 per beneficiary per year by promoting home-based health care. Those savings would be enough to produce the housing subsidy that has saved lives and money for decades on Roosevelt Island. That model should be rapidly expanded – not allowed to wither on the vine.”
Resnick pointed to a 2002 study in an op-ed for The Times he wrote in 2011, which showed that, for the patients treated at home by the Veterans Affairs’ Home Based Primary Care program, the number of days spent in hospitals and nursing homes was cut by 62% and 88%, respectively, and total healthcare costs dropped 24%.
“There has to be an answer to this problem,” said Resnick at the ADA Celebration.
He advocates a lawsuit to ban the sale, rental, and construction of any new market-rate apartments. “In 1969, the City and State signed a General Development Plan [for Roosevelt Island]. As part of it, different kinds of supportive housing had to be here,” said Resnick. “There was no end date. Mitchell-Lama was not part of that plan. Our agreement with the City doesn’t mention an end date to this subsidized housing.”
According to Calise, 7% of all affordable housing in the city is set aside for people with disabilities; broken down into 5% for mobility-impaired and 2% for vision- and/or hearing-impaired. “It would be great to fill that 7% and ask for more,” said Calise.
Calise suggested looking for ways to reframe the conversation around ADA access and housing.
“We hear, ‘If I put a ramp in, that’s going to be expensive.’ I understand that. But 11% of the population are people with disabilities. If you put that ramp in, you will increase your business by an easy 10%, and you’re not even talking about the aging population and parents with strollers. They want to get in too. There is an economic draw. That ramp is not only an asset for people with disabilities, it’s good for your business. And also you can get deliveries. So we are trying to encourage people to reframe the conversation instead of going the legal way.”
“The problem is our voice is rarely heard,” said Calise. “We don’t come together enough.”
To make future change, Calise encouraged the audience to get involved by attending Community Board meetings. He implored the crowd to be “at the table, helping people to make those decisions.” He rejected the idea that these issues are only relevant to the disabled population. All of us either are disabled, will be in the future, or are close to someone who is, according to Calise, and we should be invested in making our world ADA-accessible to plan for our future.
“We need advocacy; people with disabilities need to be involved in our Community Board process,” says Calise. “When things are built in your community and they’re not accessible to you, that’s a problem. But when we are not at the table, and not helping people make those decisions, we will never get beyond that. Get involved in your Community Board, make sure they’re advocating for everybody, make sure everyone is accepted in every way that we can.
“That’s what my office is here to do: make sure we get people with disabilities together. We need to advocate together and make sure New York is doing that for everyone.”
At the end of the presentation, Jeanne Waller, public-affairs director for Coler and Carter Hospitals, read the ADA Act.
RIDA’s Bates hopes to make this an annual event on Roosevelt Island. “In the interim,” he said, “We will have two to three training sessions where people from the regional office will come down here to share with us what the ADA can do for a disabled person: transportation, education, housing, and other areas.”