Fighting for an Accessible City

District 5 candidate Rebecca Lamorte wants to be a voice for disabled people in City Council.

| 06 Dec 2020 | 09:23

On Dec. 7, 2013, Rebecca Lamorte was standing on the uptown 6 train, reading Roald Dahl. At the time, Lamorte, then 22, was fresh out of college, working as a lobbyist and advocate for some of the city’s labor unions. She was just starting to build a life for herself on the Upper East Side.

On this day, a Saturday seven years ago, Lamorte had just enjoyed lunch with a friend, and she was heading back home. As the train rolled into the 51st Street station, Lamorte looked up from her book to see a woman, seemingly worried she’d miss her stop, coming toward her, and suddenly the woman pushed her out of the way. Lamorte fell back.

“I thought I was putting my foot on the platform, and my foot went completely into the gap between the train and the platform,” said Lamorte, recounting the incident.

She was stuck, leg lodged in the gap. The train doors began hitting her in the chest in their attempt to shut close.

Passengers quickly came to her aid, pulling her up and prying her leg out of the gap. She sat down on the train, heart pounding, in disbelief that something so surreal could happen so quickly. Bystanders wanted to call an ambulance, but Lamorte was flustered and insistent – she just wanted to go home.

Soon, the adrenaline that carried her back to her apartment faded, and she started to feel pain. Her leg swelled and parts became cold to the touch. By morning she couldn’t walk.

Thus began a life transformed by a degenerative nerve syndrome. Today, Lamorte deals with a chronic burning pain in her leg. She has difficulty getting around and uses a cane for support. Her loss of mobility has also opened her eyes to just how inaccessible New York City can be for those with disabilities. In the last seven years, Lamorte said she’s been passed on by taxi drivers who are reluctant to pick up disabled people; she has fallen down flights of stairs while trying to access a subway where there were no elevators or escalators; she’s had days where she could not leave her walkup apartment because it was just too painful to get up and down the stairs.

Now, these experiences are fueling Lamorte’s campaign for City Council in District 5, where she said she would fight for differently-abled people to have a seat at the table and shine a light on how policy impacts people with disabilities. She shares her story in a new campaign video.

“Too often conversations around accessibility, or just conversations period, don’t include people with disabilities,” said Lamorte. “I’m going to be the fighter we need. I’m going to be the voice to say we need accessibility, we need accountability. Let’s end this ableism and move towards a very real inclusive society.”

Inaccessible City
When it comes to making New York City accessible to all people, Lamorte says it begins with the MTA.

“For me, it starts with not having the MTA on an austerity budget,” she said. “It starts with getting federal aid to make sure that we’re funding our transit system so we can get these accessibility updates.”

As the city continues to make cuts to its budget in order to deal with the ongoing economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, Lamorte said the first thing to go was funds for elevator and escalator updates. She also said too often the city allows exemptions for public entities such as libraries, schools and subway stations to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act because of the cost implications.

“At a certain point, when you say it’s not worth the cost, what I hear is: I’m not worth the cost,” she said. “People with disabilities aren’t worth the cost.”

Lamorte said the city should always be viewing policy through a lens on how it affects people with disabilities, particularly in housing and education.

Currently, Lamorte said, the pandemic is exacerbating the problems in the education system and students with disabilities are struggling with remote learning.

“In our education system, we need to be sure we’re prioritizing the needs of people with disabilities, getting adequate funding, coming up with more concrete policies within the Department of Education to be sure that students with disabilities of all levels, not just getting access to a building, but then getting the adequate services when you’re inside, to be sure that you’re learning in the manner that best serves you.”

Lamorte noted that another great need within the district is affordable housing, but when building that housing, more questions need to be asked.

“Are there accessible units in it? Is there an elevator to get there? What about the local transit around us?” said Lamorte. “So being sure the new housing that is being built is not just affordable rent, it’s fully accessible, so people don’t have to make those choices like I do when some days my pain is just so intense, I can’t go up and down the stairs.”

Removing Barriers
Lamorte’s focus on issues of accessibility, she said, is in part because of the lack of current representation of disabled people in elected offices across the city.

“So many traditional trappings of campaigning are very physical; it’s very demanding,” she said. “If you’re differently abled, if you have a disability where you’re in a wheelchair, or if you have a disability that impacts how you’re able to learn or communicate, it is difficult to get your point across – and that takes people away from even thinking they can put themselves out there, thinking they can run for office.”

Lamorte said she has to be strategic in how she campaigns, because knocking on doors and getting out to meet people can be incredible draining, and often physically painful for her.

But she hopes she can be a model for other people with disabilities, that running for public office is possible, despite the barriers. If she is elected, Lamorte said she try to change the city to ensure other people didn’t experience moments of pain and embarrassment brought on by inaccessible public spaces.

For Lamorte, one of these moments of pain sticks out in her mind, because it was also the moment she decided to be a part of the change: She was at City Hall for work, representing union members at a hearing, and she asked members of security for assistance getting up the long set of stairs to get into the building. The security guards declined.

“I was told, if I can’t go up the stairs maybe I shouldn’t be there. And that was the moment I said it stops now – I’m never going let anyone have this moment. I’m never going let anyone feel like I do: so belittled, so unseen, so disrespected, and just overlooked,” she said. “This is personal to me, and when something’s personal to you, it changes the fight in a very serious way.”

“At a certain point, when you say it’s not worth the cost, what I hear is: I’m not worth the cost. People with disabilities aren’t worth the cost.” -- Rebecca Lamorte