Ted Finkelstein has spent years ensuring that housing providers, small businesses and employers make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Finkelstein is retiring as the director of the equal access program at the New York City Human Rights Commission, and in honor of Sunday’s Disability Pride Parade, we asked him about some of the progress he’s made after 37 years on the commission, and some of the challenges that still exist for people with disabilities. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
C&S: Why did you choose to help those with disabilities?
TF: When I came to the New York City Human Rights Commission 37 years ago, I was actually not a disability rights act advocate. We did a lot of different work on building communities and primarily I did a lot of work in housing to protect tenants’ rights and to make sure people had the right to decent, affordable, safe housing. As politics change and as the agency changes and picks different priorities, I found that there was one group in New York City that was primarily underserved in many areas, but in particular in the rights to equal access to housing, and that was people with disabilities. That’s the type of work I started doing really about 20 years ago.
C&S: What’s the most rewarding or difficult thing you’ve accomplished in your career?
TF: The most rewarding thing is to make New York City a more accessible city for people with disabilities; to have people get in and out of their building just as easy as people without disabilities. The simple ability to get in and out of their building, to get in and out of their bedroom, their bathroom – it’s just a life-changing event for people. The most challenging thing is, here it is almost 27 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, and years after realizing how people with disabilities are discriminated against, we still see that in a city like New York, but also all across America. People just don’t have equal access to housing and equal access to accessible housing, which is the primary thing.
C&S: Since you’ve started working with people with disabilities, what’s changed and what remains the same?
TF: What’s gotten better is essentially the awareness that people with disabilities have the right to accessible housing, and they have a right to get into any public accommodation, whether it’s a doctor’s office, a restaurant, a movie theater. I think there is an awareness on behalf of our landlords and business owners. The problem is people don’t want to spend money. I don’t think people actively don’t want to serve people with disabilities, but there is still a lack of awareness though. The awareness is growing, but it’s something that we have to be very vigilant on, from at least the city’s perspective, to try to work with business owners to make them more understanding of what their responsibilities are to provide equal access.
C&S: What are some challenges that come with advocating for those with disabilities in New York City?
TF: Well clearly, I think the No. 1 issue with people with disabilities is to have not only affordable housing, but accessible affordable housing. So even in cases where people find housing that they may be able to afford, it’s simply not accessible. The housing stock in New York City is not particularly accessible. That, I think, is the No. 1 challenge, and of course there are many other challenges.
C&S: Do you have any plans for your retirement?
TF: I will always be a fighter for social justice, whether it’s the disabled community, for the trans rights community, for human rights in general for New York City. So, I’m not stepping back from that. I’m just stepping back from waking up every morning and going to work every day. But I’ll continue to fight.