Today is International Day of People with Disabilities. Despite myriad restrictions on life due to the pandemic, honoring the rights and fighting for justice for New Yorkers who are disabled should be a top priority for leaders. As President of the Community Education Council, District 3 (CEC3), I hosted a town hall with parents from my district last night with the Chancellor of NYC public schools. Pre-COVID, we were a system of 1.1 million students, almost a quarter million of which, live with a disability. The pandemic has affected our students with disabilities population particularly hard, because many of the services that are mandated across the spectrum of disabilities, are not being delivered.
A report released earlier this week by advocacy group, Special Support Services, indicates that nearly one third of all students with legally mandated services are not receiving them during the pandemic school operation. In some cases, delivery of services is being administered by individuals who are not certified to do so. We dedicated nearly half of our town hall session last night to this issue, yet no real answers were provided to parents in the meeting, and other NYC leaders have expressed consternation over this issue but do not have the power to fix the problem. As has been the case since the pandemic began, the Chancellor asked for patience from parents and said that they were doing the best that they can. Given that the NYC DOE is a $34 billion operation, I have a hard time understanding why plans are not in place to get students what they need.
Further, students with disabilities are disproportionately students of color and students who live at or below the poverty level. They deserve better, and on this important day, I pledge to advocate for programs that right the many wrongs that we know to exist, both in and out of the public school system:
- Accessibility — the vast majority of our schools and subways are not accessible to wheelchairs. Reports on schools vary because some school buildings have partly complied with ADA mandates (installing a ramp to enter the building but nothing else), but estimates are that only 20% are said to be compliant. Elevators at subway stations are slightly more prevalent at 25% but getting to a train platform in a wheelchair is hardly the realization of an accessible transit system.
- Workplace Discrimination — laws prohibit the discrimination of people with disabilities in the workplace; however, subtle ways to exclude people still exist. Developing a culture of inclusion starts with the conditioning of private and non-profit sector leaders, the development of workplace practices that filter activities and tasks through the lens of diversity. As a person who lives with a disability of my own, I would be honored to champion this cause.
- Quality of Life and Culture — enjoyment in life, whether its through literature, music, nature, visual arts, and/or film, can be a limiting factor in the lives of people with disabilities. Adults with disabilities are more likely to live isolated lives. Furthermore, intersectionality with low and/or fixed incomes limits options for people with disabilities to get out and enjoy life, cultural institutions, parks, etc. Students and senior citizens, two other subgroups who live with limited financial means, are encouraged to get out with discounts and other incentive programs. It seems to me that New York would benefit a great deal from a wide array of initiatives to help people with disabilities enjoy the city.
My disability is mostly invisible. I live with late-onset epilepsy, which my neurologist believes began, when I suffered a fractured skull as a three-month old infant. My first seizure took place when I was in college. It got worse during my child-bearing years; but is manageable as long as I take good care of my body, manage stress, and stay on medication. For me, running is an important ingredient, and I run a lot! In fact, as part of my campaign for Borough President, I am running all 508 miles of Manhattan so that I can see every inch of the island. As I run by parks, museums, theaters, schools, playgrounds and construction projects, I am reminded of how mobility in New York is taken for granted.
I dream of a Manhattan that exemplifies the diversity and richness of the human experience. As we solider through this phase of the pandemic and suffer through an economic recovery that happens once in a lifetime, we have an opportunity to make decisions that help our most vulnerable. As the next Borough President of Manhattan, I promise to make progress on this issue as soon as I take office.