Jennifer Bartlett (right) points out an elevator sign that needs some tweaking as activist Jessica Murray and NYCT President Andy Byford look on. Photo: Erik McGregor
Among all the controversy with the Women’s Marches last month, the fight widely overlooked was the one for disability justice. Not surprising given that people with disabilities are often cast aside, despite being one of the largest minority groups in the nation at nearly 13 percent of the population.
Local poet and disability rights activist Jennifer Bartlett is working hard to change that.
Bartlett, a self-described white woman with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition caused by birth trauma that manifests as an awkward gait and a speech impediment, has demanded more than compliance with 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation. She wants leadership roles in the planning of such large-scale events, and for those with disabilities to be highlighted verses tokenized or minimized, as Bartlett wrote on Facebook.
Moreover, Bartlett makes clear an important distinction — it is not about having someone with a disability sit on a board, but having someone with a disability who is actively working to represent the community hold a board position.
So, while it’s possible that inadequate accommodations may have made the Women’s March NYC difficult for the 49-year-old Greenpoint resident to navigate, it was the lack of inclusion that led her to organize the first-ever Non-March for Disabled Women.
Sponsored by the direct-action group Rise and Resist and endorsed by the NYC Chapter of the National Women’s March, D.C., upwards of 300 disabled women and their friends, families, and allies gathered indoors at Grand Central Station where it was “warm, near an accessible elevator subway stop, required no marching, and had access to food and bathrooms.”
Bartlett traces her own transition from advocate to activist to roughly twenty years ago, when she was writing articles about disabled people for WeMedia, a now-defunct website.
“It was the first time in my life I got to know a lot of disabled people. It was interesting; I noticed the language they were using,” she says.
Since then, Bartlett has been tireless in her efforts to bring public awareness to numerous issues people with disabilities face, as well as what should be obvious — that they deserve the same respect and opportunities as able-bodied people.
As a contributor to the New York Times; co-editor of “Beauty is a Verb,” the first anthology of poets with disabilities; and other writing projects in the works, she’s sure to employ the power of the pen along with direct action to make her voice heard.
In April 2017, months before Andy Byford was a name associated with NYC Transit, Bartlett co-founded the Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group (EAG).
The EAG regularly attended transit meetings to demand the MTA to address the meager 24 percent accessible subway stations. They staged rallies and protests, and aligned with other groups for their on-going “Elevators are for Everyone” campaign, which sheds light on the diverse mix of subway riders who need and rely on working elevators.
When Byford was hired as transit president, fellow EAG activist Jessica Murray presented him with a subway map pierced with pushpins — red to delineate inaccessible stations and blue accessible — and invited him to ride the subway. Byford agreed.
Byford spent several hours traversing the system as the group encountered what they expected — issues such as slow or broken elevators, out-of-service card readers and necessary updates to elevator signage.
The unexpected happened when they ordered breakfast.
“I asked for an iced coffee, and the barista looked at Andy and said, ‘What’d she say?’ I told her: ‘I can speak for myself,’” says Bartlett. “I spend a lot of time navigating the city alone, which I like because whomever I encounter is forced to speak to me. When they ask the closest person what I’ve said, it’s completely demoralizing.”
Byford asked questions about the exchange. It was clear to Barlett that he grasped there weren’t just accessibility issues that disabled her; it was also the daily prejudice in simple interactions. She said she thought to herself, I would really like to work with this guy.
The universe heard her request.
Late last year, amidst perhaps the transit system’s most critical — and criticized — time in its history, Bartlett was tapped to be a training and outreach specialist for systemwide accessibility on the team led by the MTA’s first-ever accessibility chief, Alex Elegudin. She’s currently writing sensitivity training manuals, and will soon hold etiquette sessions for bus operators.
“I’ve been taking the bus for 20 years, and I love it. I’m really excited to work on this project.”
For more information about Rise and Resist’s Elevator Action Group go to: rise-and-resist.squarespace.com/elevator-action-group