New York City

How is NYC doing on accessibility 30 years after the ADA?

A Q&A with Victor Calise, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities Commissioner Victor Calise and Mayor Bill de Blasio host the Sapolin Awards at Gracie Mansion in 2017.

Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities Commissioner Victor Calise and Mayor Bill de Blasio host the Sapolin Awards at Gracie Mansion in 2017. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

This year, July 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination against people with disabilities and required public entities and businesses to make reasonable accommodations for them. Even though it has been decades since the ADA became law, New York City has struggled to fully comply with its mandates in various aspects of public life. A judge approved a lawsuit settlement just last year that required city officials to evaluate and upgrade its street corners to be accessible, spurred by complaints from wheelchair users and New Yorkers with low vision.

City & State spoke with Victor Calise, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, on where the city stands on improving accessibility. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What would you make of New York City’s compliance with the ADA, and what progress has been made overall since its passage 30 years ago?

I think it’s safe to say that we have more work to do and our goal is really to have constant contact with our community and understand what the needs are. Our goal in New York City really is to make it the most accessible city in the world. And by doing that, we have to ensure that we go far beyond the ADA codes and standards. Because the reality is, the ADA codes and standards are the floor; it’s really not the ceiling.

When we built New York City Ferry, we met with the community, found out exactly what their needs were and worked closely with them and (the city Economic Development Corp.). And our ferry system goes over and beyond what the codes and standards are in the ADA. New York City human rights law is really a comprehensive civil rights law and our definition protects people with disabilities over and beyond ADA as well.

The Manhattan borough president’s office just released a report showing that 90% of the sidewalk ramps they surveyed in the borough weren’t ADA compliant. What progress has the city made in making sidewalks more accessible?

We have a disability service facilitator that has worked there. That has certainly helped improve accessibility with (the Department of Transportation). We appreciate the borough president bringing certain locations to the city’s attention. I think that’s always helpful and (the Department of Transportation) is going to review that and get back to the (borough president).

But when we’re milling and paving, more accessibility is going in, more accessible pedestrian signals are popping up all over the city for people who are blind so they can cross the street. It’s really important for the city to understand where ADA access lacks, and we need people to call 311 (and) make that disability complaint.

The city made a commitment to make sidewalks more accessible last year and did a survey. Is there a plan or timeline in place for when those changes will happen?

I believe we have the data, so analyzing the data is what needs to happen. The reality is that we have a lot to do. (The Department of Transportation) is committed to doing it. They certainly stepped up their game – I’ve been seeing construction happening throughout the city. And when milling and paving comes out, they’re tackling that as well.

There have been some numbers in the past showing that 80% of the school buildings were inaccessible to students with disabilities. Has there been progress made to overcome that challenge?

When we built New York City schools, a large stock of our schools were built in the early 1900s, and we weren’t even thought of then. And that’s the beauty of the ADA, that we’re able to have civil rights law that protects us. We’re able to complain about that, and we also have guidelines that are there. We invested $750 million toward remediating school accessibility. And that doesn’t mean when we’re doing other capital projects that we aren’t adding accessibility. One of the greatest things that we’ve done just recently is that we’ve prioritized students with disabilities who have accessibility needs so they receive priority for that accessible school building. I know the team over at the Department of Education are not stopping and they’re looking for every way, shape or form to make things accessible.

Are you concerned that accessibility might fall by the wayside because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing budget issues?

The reality is COVID-19 has really messed things up, especially accessibility. We had 70 stations that the MTA was moving forward to (make accessible). They’ve cut all capital plans right now. Without funding from the federal government, that support in the MTA is going to be tough, and it’s going to make my job as a board member tough. But I have to make sure that, as a board member, I prioritize any cuts that happen to the MTA that they’re not just on disability but they really are across the board.

The MTA has been able to accelerate some subway station accessibility jobs, which I was excited to see. Some examples are 59th Street station of Brooklyn and 149th Street station at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

We hear advocates talk about Access-A-Ride all the time, and right now there’s a pilot program going on that gets people from point A to point B rather quickly. As a matter of fact, because of COVID, there’s no shared-ride system, so people are getting to their destinations quicker. So we have to figure out a system that works, not only (for) a small amount of Access-A-Ride users (but so that) more people have access to what they need.

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