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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bloomberg Rails Against Accessible Taxis

I have never been impressed with Mayor Bloomberg. But in the past week I have gone from unimpressed to deeply annoyed if not angry. It is clear to me that Bloomberg is desperate to keep the inaccessible taxi of tomorrow as the NYC taxi fleet. If he is successful I will be unable to hail a cab in NYC for the next 10-15 years. Bloomberg words, his anti disability rhetoric, is so far off base now it is hard to fathom. Someone needs to tell the man the ADA in this case is clear cut--transportation must be accessible to people with disabilities. The Feds made that clear but Bloomberg failed to take note Bloomberg I suspect may be trying to play good cop bad cop with David Yassky chairman of the NYC TLC. This week Yassky wrote that he does not think the TLC is violating the ADA in spite of the fact less than 2% of taxis are accessible. He did however acknowledge city officials "cannot ignore the possibility that a court order will at some point require a significant portion of the taxi fleet to convert to accessible vehicles". In stark contrast Bloomberg has waged a media campaign against accessible taxis. His words and actions are objectionable and insulting. He makes it sound as though if taxis are required to be accessible the entire NYC taxi system will collapse.

So what has Bloomberg said this week? Among the low lights:

The dispatch system will work. He expects people with a disability to call the TLC who will dispatch one of the 231 accessible cabs in the city. Bloomberg thinks 231 accessible cabs is adequate and that a dispatched cab will arrive promptly. Give me a break. This might work in the middle of the day in August when the city is empty but I would not expect a cab to arrive promptly if at all on an ordinary day. Forget trying to get a dispatched cab during rush hour, at the end of an event, or on a busy weekend.

The suspension system on the accessible cabs is inferior and dangerous. Accidents to non disabled people are inevitable and the city will be deluged with law suits. According to Bloomberg "The suspension is a lot worse and its harder to get up and pay the cab driver and get in and out and that sort of thing". When I read this I almost laughed. The issue of safety was used for decades to bar people with a disability from schools, buses, planes, trains, concerts etc. This new twist is preposterous. The ADA is clear--public transportation must be accessible

New York City is unlike any other city in the country. Bloomberg said "it just doesn't work in a city like ours, and I don't know that the U.S. Attorney General understands how people live in the city and the traffic patterns and that sort of thing". Traffic patterns? I think a grid system is pretty basic. And how I wonder is it that other cities with far more complex traffic patterns have accessible cabs and cabbies that actually stop for people with a disability. London and Dublin are two such cities.

The passenger in accessible cabs sits far away from the driver. Tips will be radically smaller because of the distance. According to Bloomberg "When the cabs are big enough for a wheelchair a lot of cabdrivers say that the passengers sit farther away and they can't establish a dialogue and they get lower tips". The distance is also a grave danger as well. Bloomberg maintains "You know, there's so much more pace between the backseat and the divider, you're going to have people getting hurt". A dialogue with a NYC cab driver? Who is Bloomberg trying to kid? As for the size, Bloomberg makes it sound as though the accessible cab is the size of a tractor trailer. Preposterous.

I saved the best comment for last. Bloomberg: "You can't take a wheelchair out into the street and try and hail a cab". What? Exactly where does Bloomberg expect the human beings sitting in a wheelchair to hail a cab? I am sure he ever seen a person navigate the streets of New York City using a wheelchair. I am in the street all the time. When I park my car mid block and walk to a muni-meter, fail at hailing a cab, go an entire block in the street because a curb cut is blocked or not present, avoiding construction etc.

I hope Bloomberg is desperate. If history is any indication, he sounds like former Mayor Koch. The closer the city came to being forced to make the buses accessible the more obnoxious Koch became. And Koch was the typical New Yorker--sharp witted, opinionated, and wrong. Koch's anti disability rhetoric was at least creative in retrospect. Bloomberg;s anti disability rhetoric lacks any creativity, substance and relies on antiquated bigotry. Bloomberg is very much out of touch with disability rights. Indeed, I doubt the man even knows what the term means. I suspect our billionaire mayor's mind set is stuck in a charity model of disability where laws like the ADA can be easily ignored. I sure hop the Feds will remind him that people like me have civil rights.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dr. Oz on Assisted Suicide: A Train Wreck

Last week I received an email from Stephen Drake, research analyst, for Not Dead Yet. He wrote that he and Diane Coleman might be on a syndicated television program called Doctor Oz. The subject was assisted suicide, not exactly the usual afternoon television fodder. To say I was skeptical would be too generous—daytime television is not exactly known for quality programming and I had never heard of Dr. Oz. As it turns out Drake and Coleman could not appear. I decided to attend knowing some members of Not Dead Yet would be present as well. I had three concerns: first, the daytime television model is for tear jerking, maudlin depictions of any issue and this would undermine any serious discussion. Second, would the show use people with a disability as mere window dressing for the viewing audience. Third, would the show be grossly biased. My concerns were well placed. The taping of the show was in my opinion a train wreck. It was an amazingly horrible experience. All my concerns came to fruition. In fact I would go as far as say the show, its host and producers were unethical.

As part of the expert audience, prominently sitting in the center of the studio, I did not say a word. It was very clear from the opening that my views were not valued. Yes, I was indeed window dressing. The so-called expert panel was hopelessly biased in favor of assisted suicide. Any opposition to assisted suicide was token at best—the minimal required that gives the appearance of being unbiased. This role was performed, scripted perhaps, by Keith Ablow who seemed to delight in upsetting people. The audience became hostile to any semblance of opposition to assisted suicide and was vocal about it. Worse yet, they used a highly emotional, think tear jerking, style to move the audience. The message was clear: disability is a fate worse than death and that assisted suicide is the most humane thing available to us. Out of the goodness of society’s collective soul the terminally ill and all those suffering should be put out of our misery.

The taping of the show made me feel like I was in a time warp—think Jerry Lewis telethon at its worst circa 1960. I fear I witnessed a raw new world emerging that I suspect reflects middle American values. It was ugly and I was forced to envision a world in which the ADA was never passed into law, disability rights did not exist, the medical model of disability was the only model, and equality was given out in small doses to appease pesky crippled people and make the almighty normal bipedal humans feel better about themselves. This ties directly into the push for assisted suicide laws and the serious threat such laws are to those with a disability and other marginalized people whose life is not valued.

I know daytime television programming is about entertainment. A sober and detailed discussion was not what I expected. But I had no clue just how bad the show’s taping would be. If possible it set an all time low. It far exceeded the very worst I could have possibly imagined. In this regard, Stephen Drake’s post, “Media Alert—Looks Like Dr. Oz is Planning Slanted Show on Assisted Suicide”, at the Not Dead Yet blog was prophetic. Most of the expert panelists were in favor of assisted suicide. Little time was devoted to rational reasons why such laws are in fact dangerous. Montel Wiliams, vigorously for assisted suicide legislation, exemplified the dichotomy between those for and against assisted suicide laws. Advocates for assisted suicide used highly emotional arguments that were very effective and touched the hearts and minds of those in the audience. Do we have the right to die was Dr. Oz’s refrain. The precious little time allotted to those opposed to assisted suicide were used as the veritable straw man--the downer who poured water over the parade toward assisted suicide legislation.

I have thought a great deal about what took place at the taping of the show. It is clear to me now that the show was well scripted. A very clear plan existed. The emotional argument for assisted suicide was to be pushed as hard as possible. This would whip up the audience and lip service would be paid to those opposed to assisted suicide. The audience reaction would be visceral and nasty to any nuance or balanced point of view. The goal of the show was to illicit a strong emotional response. And here is where I think the host and producers were unethical. The star of the show—a deeply depressed black woman with ALS accompanied by a home health aide, her two children, sisters and mother. This woman was used, exploited really. She was the archetype for why assisted suicide legislation should be passed into law now. She was portrayed as trapped in a body that was failing and would continue to fail. Huge photographs of her in an athletic uniform were used to juxtapose her sitting in a wheelchair, respirator dependent-a fate worse than death. How could society be so callous as to deny a release from her suffering. The host ever so sincerely asked her children would they support her mother if she wanted to use assisted suicide. Tears flowed, the audience was broken hearted and angry. Let this woman poor die. Pan the dejected audience, go to commercial, be sure to include other people with a disability in the camera frame.

The thought that I was a part of this show makes me feel like my humanity was violated. I am also deeply worried. There is a serious push to pass assisted suicide laws in the Northeast. Shows like Dr. Oz will surely be used by well funded groups like Compassion and Choices when they give presentations. The visuals and emotional power of such tear jerking stories cannot be dismissed. It is powerful stuff. It is also grossly misleading. While others will be moved to tears this is what I was thinking; how many people with ALS, in the exact same condition as the woman on the show, are content and leading rich and full lives? I would venture to guess the vast majority. I am not dismissing the serious nature of ALS—it is an inevitably fatal condition. But why is it this woman that appeared on the show is applauded for wanting to die and not adapting to her disability? She is the tragic hero while the person with ALS and all those who adapt to disability are not supported or given any respect. Social supports for people with a disability that want to live a life that includes the mundane, a job, family, access to mass transportation and a decent home are given begrudgingly. These people are difficult, a drain on the country’s financial resources. No wonder I have not felt equal since I took my last step when I was eighteen-year old.

What the audience failed to learn was the laws for assisted suicide in Washington and Oregon have taught us that people do not choose to die because they are in pain. And the show clearly led people to believe people with a disability are in pain and hence should have the right to die. I believe in the exact opposite: we all have the right to live. The reality is people choose to die because they believe they have no dignity and fear being an economic burden on their loved ones. This is not a failure of the medical establishment (we are all going to die afterall) but rather a social failure. We fail to support the vulnerable. And like it or not I am part of that vulnerable population. Many good things have come as a result of my paralysis and vulnerability. I know that dignity and quality of life are extremely subjective concepts. I also know people see me and think they would rather be dead than paralyzed. Some are even willing to share this sentiment with me. Thus I am no different from any other person with a disability. And we people with a disability desperately need to get our act together. Show like Dr. Oz are misleading and dangerous. Our voices need to heard, our existence valued.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NYC Taxis, the Mayor and the U.S. Attorney

Sunday October 16 the New York Daily News published an editorial that took me aback--"Mayor Bloomberg Must Make the City's Taxis 100% Wheelchair Accessible". A few days earlier the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara filed court papers that the government agrees with disabled activists who have sued the Taxi and Limousine Commission. In no uncertain and in unusually blunt terms Bharara wrote the TLC cannot continue to violate the ADA. The U.S. Attorney's remarks are out of the norm and are without question the strongest criticism of the mayor and the TLC to date. At present, the city does not require taxis to be accessible. The NY Daily News noted that "there are 13,237 yellow taxis; 231 can accommodate a wheelchair. That's 1.7%, making the chance of hailing one almost impossible. That tiny proportion clashes with the ADA's requirement of equality of access and cannot be remedied by a sketchy plan for a system of telephone-dispatched wheelchair-accessible cabs. What's more, federal standards mandate that vans must be accessible when they are employed as cabs.
Bharara got to the point, stating, "a ruling by this court now that the city is obligated to ensure that all new taxicabs are wheelchair-accessible is all the more important because it will likely have a significant impact on both the city's implementation of an accessible taxicab dispatch system and its selection of the vehicle that will become the 'Taxi of Tomorrow.'"

The TLC concept of a dispatch system will not only fail miserably (which it did under a test run last summer) it is an obvious attempt to avoid complying with the ADA. Based on the U.S. Attorney's words it seems that the mayor and TLC have no choice but to accept the fact they cannot continue to break the law. The so called taxi of tomorrow must be accessible. This losing fight on the part of the city fight reminds me of the late 1970s when Mayor Koch was violently opposed to making city buses accessible. I vividly recall Koch loudly telling reporters it would be cheaper to rent a limo for every person with a disability than putting lifts on NYC buses. Koch was not only wrong but spectacularly wrong. NYC buses are not only accessible but are used by thousands of disabled people every day. I have no doubt Mayor Bloomberg is as impressively wrong as Koch was.

Bloomberg will no doubt try and fight the U.S. Attorney. His administration has been hostile to disability rights for quite some time (see my post about hurricane shelters and lack of accessible locations to vote). I am hopeful this is a fight Bloomberg and the TLC will lose. Even with a victory change will be slow to come. Hailing a cab for a person such as myself that uses a wheelchair is an exercise in futility. I tease my friends an armed bank robber being chased by the police has a better chance of haling a cab in New York City than I do. But do not take my word for it. In a letter to the editor published by New Mobility, a yuppie magazine for people with a disability, Ellen Stohl, a visitor to the city wrote: "I just returned from a trip to New York City. Cabs do not stop for people in chairs. Outside the Empire State Building, my family and I tried to hail a cab. My husband kept flagging them down, but they would pull in and then pull right back out when they saw the chair." This is an every day event for anyone in NYC that uses a wheelchair and is naive enough to try and hail a cab. But Stohl is a smart woman. She learned the NYC way to hail a cab. She wrote "I finally had to hide behind a big flower pot while my husband and a ticket salesperson waived down a cab. We got my mother-in-law and daughter into the cab before I came out of hiding so the cabbie could not leave". And that my friends is about the only way a person that uses a wheelchair in NYC can get a cabbie to stop. It is grossly wrong and the norm. If the Mayor and TLC have their way nothing will change for decades. If they lose, I hope NYC cabbies of the future may actually change--there would at least be hope someday I can hail a cab like other New Yorkers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blind Stupidity: The Media Misses the Point Again

Print media many contend is dying. What will replace it is subject to debate. I for one will not miss mainstream New York newspapers or television news programs. For me, the internet has firmly replaced the need for newspapers and television news programs. Yet I still glance at the newspapers--on line of course. My guilty pleasure is the oldest local tabloid, the New York Post. I love the headlines--tawdry and wildly creative. I avoid reading any of the "news" in the NY Post. No one I know reads the Post for the news. You read the Post for gossip in fashion, politics, and sports. And since I am New York Ranger fan I read the Post because Larry Brooks is a controversial writer who covers the team. Yesterday as I was reading the sports page and on the screen I saw a picture of a very attractive woman and the headline "Blind Ambition". Despite the cute play on words I told myself do not read that article. Just don't do it. Give credit to the Post, I just could not resist. The Post is smart I am stupid. How I wish I had not read the article. It was dreadful and typical--the archetype for articles about people with a disability that miss the point by a country mile.

The main stream media loves creative titles when disability is involved. "Blind Ambition" is catchy and the picture of a very attractive woman in her 20s is hard to resist. I knew the article was going to be dreadful after reading the first sentence: "She's Wall Street's blind bombshell". Here are some of the low lights--lines that are objectionable. Let me parse these lines and reveal the underlying cultural assumption.

NY Post: "Despite being legally blind, the bullish beauty works on the equity trading floor of JP Morgan Chase".

Assumption: People who are legally blind are not expected to hold a job and certainly not a job that involves responsibility.

NY Post: "But work came with adjustments".

Assumption: Blindness is so terrible I cannot imagine how she copes and it is remarkable she is competent. She must need multiple and costly accommodations.

NY Post: "She is surrounded by three massive 24-inch computer monitors--twice the size of her colleagues screens--to track the market, has large colorful stickers affixed to her keyboard to make out letters, and uses text-to-speech software to read her emails which are fed to her through headphones".

Assumption: Wow, JP Morgan Chase is wonderful! Imagine they spent all that money on high tech equipment out of the goodness of its heart so this poor woman can work. She sure is lucky. The employer is bending over backwards for this woman.

NY Post: "It's an incredible example of fortitude to do her job the way everyone else does".

Assumption: People who are blind cannot do what sighted people can. Those blind people that can do the ordinary--work like the sighted--are remarkable people. Incompetence and lack of ability is assumed to go and in hand with blindness.

I do not think I am being too harsh. I accept this is a tabloid and my expectations are severely limited. With editing this article, even with its catchy title, had potential. The NY Post could have made people think. For example, a good article could have noted the following.

The woman in question is lucky to have been employed before she lost her sight in 2009. The unemployment rate among blind people is 70% This familiarity surely enhanced the chances she could return to work. The accommodations made by JP Morgan Chase are required by the ADA--it is the law. The large screens and software used were not costly. In fact, accommodating an employee with a disability is not costly--usually a few hundred dollars at most.

The above facts never seem to wind up in print. The focus is always on the kindness or generosity of the employer who bends over backwards for a person with a disability. This person is always "remarkable" and possesses "fortitude". The unspoken corollary is this person puts all those other incompetent lazy crippled people to shame. If most people with disability were like this person they too would have a job. This lets society and its failure to accommodate people with disabilities off the hook. Maybe the unemployment rate would not be nearly 70% if mass transportation and affordable housing were accessible. No, this is never brought up. Instead, we laud the plucky individual cripples that succeed against all odds. This makes me crazy and I am perplexed any human thinks this way. The problem people with a disability have is a long held ingrained social bias that is demonstrated in the form of a lack of access in all avenues of life. Instead of praise one sole blind person why not pose the following questions:

Why is text to speech software not included as part of every computer operating system?
Why is closed captioning not universal on line and in all video produced?
Why is every mass transportation system not accessible?
Why is not all new home construction accessible?

I can pose hundreds of other questions about the gross lack of equal access for people with disabilities in American society. I am not sure what good it would do. For reasons I have never been unable to understand, when it comes to disability American society has yet to enter into a national dialogue about its meaning, importance, and exactly why inclusion has proved elusive. Articles such as the one discussed in the NY Post are but a small sign equality for people with a disability is a long way off.