It ‘s a highly unusual action.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District has intervened in a lawsuit brought by several disability rights groups. In a letter to the judge, Prosecutor Preet Bharara deplored the lack of wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in New York City, saying it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. In effect, he backed the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Mayor Bloomberg didn’t. He pointed out, instead, how difficult it is to take a wheelchair into the streets and how difficult it is to get a cab driver to stop for a wheelchair occupant.
The controversy is illuminating. It shows how different the approaches are to the problems of the disabled.
There are 1.6 million New Yorkers, the lawsuit says, who have some kind of disability. Approximately 60,000 are wheelchair-users -- and there’s a growing elderly population who need wheelchairs.
The lawsuit was brought against the city by a coalition of disability rights groups. They criticized the Taxi and Limousine Commission for failing to provide adequate access to taxicabs for people who use wheelchairs.
The Mayor, in his
on WOR, said: “When the cabs are big enough for a wheelchair, a lot of the cab drivers say that the passengers sit farther away and they can’t establish a dialogue and they get lower tips. But the real answer to that is the cabs that we pick so far [in the city ‘s effort to expand the number of cabs] are easier for handicapped people that are not wheelchair-bound.
“And if you are in a wheelchair -- the justice department I don’t think has ever been to New York -- you go out in the streets, you cannot just take, generally, a wheelchair out into the street and try to hail a cab. It’s dangerous and a lot of cab drivers just would, I think, pretend they didn’t see. Some will, but some won’t, and it’s very had to get them to stop, pull over, and safely get you and your wheelchair in.”
When was the last time you had ”a dialogue” with a cab driver? Many of them do have dialogues but they’re mainly dialogues with friends on their phone. Often, they can’t hear you unless you shout.
I spoke to one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city. Christopher Noel is 36. He lost the use of his legs in an accident six years ago -- and he needs taxis to do his job. He works for the Independence Care organization, which helps disabled people and seniors meet basic needs.
He said of Bloomberg’s remarks: “He’s saying things that are discriminatory. He’s putting people in wheelchairs on the lowest possible level. He seems to be acting in a different way than when I voted for him. He’s a mayor. He should be looking over all of us. I’m very offended. People with wheelchair needs are still people.”
Julia Pinover, of Disability Rights Advocates, told me: “ I think Bloomberg is extraordinarily uneducated, bigoted and patronizing for placing people with wheelchairs in a low category. Many of these people need taxis to keep business engagements, to keep doctors’ appointments, to get to and from their offices. He should get educated about this important part of his constituency.”
The mayor says he wants to ensure that everyone who needs extra help gets it. He wants to come up with a system where there would be a lot of wheelchair-accessible cabs but they would be dispatched to pick you up when you need a wheelchair.
But the advocates say that won’t work and it treats the disabled unfairly.
So the question is: should we have a practical businessman’s approach to this problem or is there a need for a more sensitive approach?
The advocates and a federal prosecutor are pressing for an answer. City Hall needs to deliver it soon.