Equal Access for People with Disabilities Op-Ed

| 27 Aug 2015 | 04:40

Twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities still face barriers to civic and cultural life.

For example, the city is under no obligation to mention whether its public events are available to the entire public — that is, whether they are accessible to the estimated 10 percent of New Yorkers who have disabilities. We can do better.

Last month I introduced three bills to increase access to the more than 810,000 New Yorkers with disabilities:

Events hosted or sponsored by the City should include accessibility information for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities want to know if an event open to the public is accessible for them, too. There are already universal symbols to denote different kinds of accessible accommodations, including: Wheelchair Accessible, Assistive Listening Systems, Sign Language, Telephone Typewriter (TTY), Braille, Accessible Print, and Low Vision Access.

It would be easy for civic and cultural organizations to include accessibility information in their publicity materials, and it would make a world of difference for people with disabilities.

Furthermore, some accommodations, like a sign-language interpreter, can take time to coordinate; a publicly posted deadline and contact person for reasonable accommodation requests will ensure that people with disabilities have the best chance at participating in an event.

The bill would apply to any event hosted or funded by the City, including cultural events (concerts, lectures, film screenings) and civic events (City Council hearings, community board meetings, and public hearings held by city agencies).

Relevant city agencies should include a qualified ADA coordinator on staff to ensure that the Agency’s work accommodates people with disabilities.

The ADA requires city governments with 50 or more employees to have one ADA coordinator, but given New York City’s population, one ADA coordinator per relevant agency might be necessary. Furthermore, it’s difficult for New Yorkers with disabilities to find a complete and current list of ADA coordinators at city agencies, so they can contact reach them for accommodations.

The Department of Transportation, however, is a shining example of a city agency that employs an ADA coordinator and includes accommodations for people with disabilities in their transportation mission. It’s my understanding that DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg includes her ADA coordinator in all meetings to ensure that accessibility is “front and center” in the minds of DOT administrators as they plan safe streets and address all traffic issues. You can easily find and contact him via the DOT website.

There are many city agencies that should embrace the valuable information that an ADA coordinator would bring, from the Human Resources Administration to the Department for Homeless Services.

Government meetings open to the public should accommodate people with hearing loss.

While the ADA had a huge impact in ensuring new buildings serve people with physical disabilities, the same cannot be said for people with hearing loss. A permanently installed hearing loop, a wire placed around the perimeter of a room on the floor or ceiling, is a game-changer for people who use hearing aids or cochlear implants; it cuts through the background noise and allows the audio signal to shine through clearly. Like a ramp or an elevator for people who use wheelchairs, a hearing loop requires some expense up front but minimal cost to maintain, and it opens the door for a community that is otherwise excluded.

You can already find hearing loops around the city. Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack has hearing loops at the cash registers at three locations (Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Battery Park) so people with hearing loss can hear the cashier and easily place their order. The MTA has hearing loops around the windows of its subway station booths so people with hearing loss can get information. (this videodemonstrates the difference hearing loops make in the subway.)

However, for people with hearing loss, it is nearly impossible to participate at community board meetings, forums, City Council meetings or mayoral events. My legislation requires all city government meetings that are open to the public be held in a facility equipped with hearing loops by 2020.

Disability rights are civil rights. This legislation is a modest step towards a more inclusive New York City, and I expect a committee hearing later this year. You can bet that hearing will be accessible to all New Yorkers.

Helen Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side on the New York City Council.