MANHATTAN — There was a time in New York City when a wheelchair was an insurmountable barrier to getting around town. Buses had no lifts and subways no elevators. Cabs were only accessible to the able bodied.
All that has changed — though not without major fights, and two recent victories that promise to make taxis more open to the disabled.
On Dec. 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a landmark piece of legislation that authorized the sale of 2,000 new yellow cab medallions to handicap-accessible taxis only. The bill will also sell 6,000 street hail permits for livery cabs, provided that 20 percent of those vehicles are wheelchair accessible too.
Then, on Dec. 23, Judge George B. Daniels ruled that the city’s current taxi system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and ordered that the city draft a plan that would provide the disabled with “meaningful access” to cabs.
Advocates have celebrated the two landmark achievements, which came within days of one another. The court case itself marks the first time that the ADA has been applied to a taxi system, said Julia Pinover, one of the attorneys representing disability rights advocates in the case.
“It means a lot for New York, and it could mean a lot for the rest of the country,” Pinover said. “Having that legal precedent set just makes reforming every other taxi system in the country much easier.”
But although the victories came in rapid succession, the fight behind the scenes has been dragging on for 15 years, said James Weisman, 60, senior vice president and general counsel of the United Spinal Association and a longtime disability rights advocate.
Weisman would know. He has been pushing for universal accessibility in the city’s public transportation system for more than three decades, and every win has been the result of a heated battle with the city that almost always ended up in court.
Weisman and his fellow advocates first took aim at accessibility in the city’s buses and subways. Weisman, then just two years out of law school, filed suit in 1979 against the city and the MTA. Five years later, he won when a court ruled that all city buses had to be made accessible, along with “key” subway stations.
Now, wheelchair lifts can be found on all city buses and are used roughly 100,000 times per month, said Weisman, who also helped draft the ADA. In addition, about 80 subway stations have elevators, with another soon on the way in Upper Manhattan after a separate accessibility suit that again pitted Weisman against the MTA.
The fight for accessibility in the city’s taxis began about 15 years ago, when Weisman helped establish the Taxis for All Campaign.
The city had — and still has — a paratransit system, which provides on-demand rides for those in wheelchairs, but it isn’t a separate and equal service, Weisman said.
“The reason why we were pushing was spontaneity,” Weisman explained. “You have to plan in advance [with paratransit]. It doesn’t allow the spontaneity.”
The battle chugged along with minimal gains until about a year ago, when Weisman turned to attorneys Julia Pinover and Sid Wolinsky at Disability Rights Advocates.
They discussed filing a lawsuit, but before moving ahead with litigation, the team drafted several letters to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, requesting a meeting with the agency to hopefully sort through the accessibility problem outside the legal system, Pinover said.
“They [the TLC] just wouldn’t come to the table,” Pinover said.
In a statement, the TLC said it met with disability rights advocates on numerous occasions but did not specify why an agreement could not be reached.
In January of 2011, the United Spinal Association, along with several other organizations and individuals, filed suit against the city, claiming that it was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because only about 230 of the city’s 13,000 cabs were accessible for wheelchair users.
The case came down to a final round of arguments in November, during which the city argued that it had no responsibility to make any of its taxis accessible — let alone the 230 that already were.
But Judge George B. Daniels disagreed, calling the city’s stance “extreme” and ruling that the city has to provide “meaningful access” to taxis for people with disabilities.
That decision, coupled with the bill signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, provides a strong foundation for moving toward accessibility, Pinover explained.
“The bill gives [the city] a year to present a plan,” she said, adding that the judge could push the city to act even faster than that.
The bill also provides a financial incentive for the city to move quickly, Pinover continued, because it can only sell 400 of the 2,000 new taxi medallions until the plan has been approved.
In a statement, the TLC said it has started developing a plan for approval.
Part of that plan will include a dispatch system, which the TLC is already developing, that would allow wheelchair users to call 311 to request an accessible cab when necessary.
"The bill that the governor signed will be a great help in moving forward with a plan on accessibility," TLC Commissioner David Yassky said. "Not all of the new accessible medallions will be on the road in the next year, and the accessible dispatch plan is [a] key component in providing accessible service as soon as possible."
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but on his weekly radio appearance with WOR's John Gambling on Friday, Bloomberg said the new deal negotiated by the governor “does an awful lot of what the judge said we should do. And so it may very well be that we can convince the judge that we’re going in the right direction.”
Bloomberg also promoted the idea of a dispatch system, calling is something “we just have to have” and saying it can be dangerous for people in wheelchairs to be out in the street hailing cabs.
“You’ve got conflicting things here. There is a group of people that need our help. And we have to give them the help," Bloomberg said. "There’s also the general public that has to be thought about.”
But for Weisman, that harkens back to a system that is separate, not equal.
“People with disabilities are vulnerable and they’re out there anyway, and we’re trying to make it better, not worse,” Weisman said.
“People with disabilities want to work. They want to be rich. They have exactly the same desires as everyone else. There’s no difference,” he continued.
“I feel like you’re a bonehead if you don’t see that at this point.”
With reporting by Jill Colvin.