• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size

New York City Workers with Disabilities Fight for Inclusion in Pandemic Recovery, Mayoral Race

Share this post

Even before the pandemic, unemployment among disabled workers in New York City was at a crisis level—just 30 to 35 percent were employed. Over the past year, the situation has grown even worse.

Independent living centers, which help disabled residents find socio-economic stability, reported that more than 50 percent of their clients were let go from their jobs, the Center for an Urban Future found in a March 2021 report.

Now, leaders of these centers are preparing a policy platform and calling for greater resources from City Hall hopefuls. As talk of pandemic recovery intensifies and the June 22 primary for citywide and council races fast approaches, leaders see an opportunity to make inroads against growing inequities.


The United States Census estimated there were nearly 900,000 people with disabilities in New York City as of 2019; the Office of the New York State Comptroller put it even higher, closer to 930,000 in 2017.

That’s a population close to twice the size of the borough of Staten Island. It’s a broad group of people, cutting across class, racial, and gender identities, with disabilities such as visual, hearing, ambulatory, cognitive—the list goes on.

“We’re the nurse, the doctor, the police officer, the educator, the person who’s cleaning the sidewalk, the person stocking shelves in stores,” said Christina Curry, executive director of the Harlem Independent Living Center. “You don’t need to be born in this community. It can happen at any moment.”

Independent living centers like Curry’s offer job training, counseling, and educational programs. Organizer Ed Robert led efforts to develop the independent living movement in the 1970s in Berkeley, California, as a means of empowering disabled people to live fulfilling lives on their own terms.

But New Yorkers with disabilities face a longstanding employment crisis. “Poverty is a huge, huge issue,” said Susan Dooha of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, a nonprofit that serves 40,000 New Yorkers annually.

Data compiled by the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability Statistics showed that about 26 percent of people with disabilities were living below the federal poverty level last year. The poverty level for a family of four in the United States in 2021 is an annual income of $26,500.

“We’re the last hired, first fired, and last rehired if things work the way they are now,” said Susan Scheer, founder of the city’s Access-A-Ride program (launched in 1990, the initiative offers a door-to-door transportation service to disabled New Yorkers) and CEO of the Institute for Career Development.

Often the main barriers to employment are “misinformation, fear, stigma,” Curry said. “Our common goal is to get the disabled community employed, to have access to the community, to remove those barriers.”


With thousands out of work, transit reform will be crucial to bridging the gap.

Joe Rappaport of the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled points to a survey by the New York Independent Living Council. “Transportation is cited as the second-most prominent reason for people to have trouble getting employment,” said Rappaport. “Second to discrimination.”

Less than one-quarter of New York City’s subway stations are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed over 30 years ago. And that’s if none of the elevators are out of service.

Many advocates want to see the transit system overhauled to reflect the principle of universal design, in other words, the reconstruction of spaces so that they can be accessed and understood by the largest group of people, regardless of their background and ability. Many of the changes community members would like to see, such as accessible subway stations and taxi cabs, are already mandated by city, state, or federal laws like the ADA.

Rappaport and others are involved in a growing number of accessibility-related lawsuits against local and state government to force these reforms. While he couldn’t comment on any one case in particular, he said he sees a decades-spanning trend.

“Typically, the response of the city when a disparity or shortcoming is pointed out by members of the community or organizations is, the city just says, ‘We’re going to fight this with everything we’ve got.’” Rappaport said. “This isn’t the de Blasio administration, or Bloomberg, or Giuliani, or Koch or Dinkins—it’s every administration.

“It’s inexcusable and it costs money. We’re going to win. The city’s going to lose. But in the meantime, the city’s lack of action puts people at risk.”


While it’s true that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators in Albany have immense power over the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), New York City isn’t powerless when it comes to decisions on the system’s capital projects.

The new mayor, whoever that turns out to be, may have a rosier relationship with the governor’s office than current Mayor Bill de Blasio does. Rappaport suggested a new mayor should redouble efforts to appoint members to the MTA Board; there are two vacancies now, but Cuomo has made no concerted public effort to get de Blasio’s nominees confirmed by the state senate.

These individuals would have veto power over capital projects that don’t, for instance, include financing the construction of additional elevators in the city subway system.

“Other entities—the state senate and assembly for example—over the years, have influenced the direction of the MTA’s capital program by using the threat of veto power to get what they want,” Rappaport said. “It’s not an unheard-of idea.”

In April the MTA proposed “Zoning for Accessibility,” a series of zoning reforms to incentivize private developers with the promise of financial awards to build elevators in the city’s subway stations.

This proposal aligns with the transit system’s five-year plan released in 2019 to pump millions of dollars into accessibility-oriented upgrades at dozens of stations. This week several transit and accessibility advocacy groups rallied together to call on President Biden to include $20 billion for this capital plan in the proposed federal infrastructure bill (also known as the American Jobs Plan).


And yet, even if transit options were widely accessible, other barriers to employment abound—chief among them, discrimination by employers.

Brett Eisenberg has been battling it for decades; before his current role as executive director of the Bronx Independent Living Center, he was at the insurance company American International Group working to improve corporate hiring practices.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about hiring people with disabilities,” said Eisenberg. “A new administration should lead by example. If you’re not hiring people with disabilities, how can you expect anyone else to?”

Many advocates point to the federal hiring quota for people with disabilities as a standard that the city should adopt, since it currently does not have one. Under the Obama administration, the federal government required that people with disabilities comprise 7 percent of its workforce; it soon surpassed that figure, hitting 14 percent in 2016.


In an open letter to candidates for municipal office this spring, a coalition of independent living center directors and advocates demanded that campaigns become more accessible to disabled voters.

“Federal and local laws require reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, including allowing full access to events, forums, and meetings,” they wrote. “But those laws often are ignored, and we end up shut out of the electoral process.”

The letter hasn’t gotten much response. “To be honest, we received a little inquiry, but not what we would want,” co-signer Eisenberg said. “In general when we talk about people with disabilities, the biggest problems we have are attitudinal.”

With primary day drawing near, a mix of co-signers of the April letter and others are working to release a formal platform to present to candidates on behalf of the disability community.

“It’s late in the game, but we think it will be useful for the next administration,” Rappaport said, “not just the next mayor but the next city council and other officials.”


Only a few candidates had reached out to center leaders by the time of writing this article. Many advocates are concerned that services for the disabled are still largely left out of the political discourse.

“I have to be very careful, because politicians have very long memories,” Curry said. “We’re not even thought about to be forgotten when politicians and candidates start talking about what they want to do to help New Yorkers. We’re not even on the radar.

“We’re constantly re-educating them: we’re here. You want us to go vote? Well, it would be nice if you would help us in that fight to make sure the polling place is accessible.”

For Scheer, it comes down to political will. “Disability is a product of the environment, and the environment can be adapted,” she said. “I use a wheelchair, so stairs make me disabled when a ramp makes me abled.

“I don’t want to be having this conversation again with somebody in 20 years. This is our moment and we can really change the tide.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Emmet Teran is content manager of Unit, a digital platform launched to help U.S. workers form unions. He’s also a New Yorker with low vision and an Urban Policy & Leadership Master’s student at Hunter College.

Share this post

NYC Bridge and Tunnel Bosses Won’t Budge on Foreign Steel

Share this post

Bruce VailAn explosion of anger this summer from labor leaders and elected officials about a contract to import Chinese steel for bridge repairs in New York City has fizzled out in the face of stubborn insistence by local transportation officials that U.S-produced steel is just too expensive.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is in charge of the project to repair the landmark Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, came into contention with the United Steel Workers when it revealed it was spending an estimated $34 million to buy specialized steel products from the China Railway Shanhaiguan Bridge Group and the Anshan Iron & Steel Group. USW President Leo Gerard went so far as to describe the decision as “anti-American.”  Despite the USW’s repeated calls to use U.S.-manufactured metal in the renovation project instead of 15,000 tons of Chinese steel, MTA officials have flatly rejected any proposed changes to their plan.

USW District 4 Director John Shinn tells Working In These Times that a top-level meeting with regional transport officials earlier this month was “disappointing.” Though there appeared to be some agreement that government agencies would try harder in the future to source steel procurement contracts in the United States, the New York meeting also revealed that a separate regional transportation agency—the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey—will proceed withits own contract with Italian steelmaker Cimolai to supply a project to upgrade the Bayonne Bridge, just a few short miles away from the Verrazano-Narrows span. Like the MTA, the Port Authority will not reconsider its plans to import foreign steel, Shinn says.

For their part, transportation officials are pushing back hard against the criticism from USW and its political allies like Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg told Working In These Times this summer that the agency went to “extraordinary lengths”  to recruit a U.S. steel manufacturer for the bridge job, but that higher prices and uncertain delivery schedules made an American purchase impossible. Likewise, Port Authority spokesperson Chris Valens said in an interview with Working In These Times that pricing and delivery issues had driven the agency in favor of the Italian manufacturer. Cimolai is a proven high-quality vendor to the Port Authority, Valens added, having provided steel for use in construction of the new rail-subway center built to replace the one destroyed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.

Both agencies also defended themselves by arguing that the vast majority of their construction spending benefits U.S. producers and employs unionized labor. The Verrazano-Narrows project, for example, will cost a total of $235 million (including all supples, labor and administration) and generate about one million man-hours of employment locally, most of which will be performed by unionized workers, according to Lisberg. Furthermore, the MTA is itself one of the region’s largest union employers, with about 55,000 of its 65,000 employees under union contract. Similarly, Valens maintained that the Bayonne Bridge importation of foreign steel was an exception to the Port Authority’s normal practices, and he said a planned $1.5 billion replacement of northern New Jersey’s Goethals Bridge will use all U.S.-manufactured metals.

But these rationalizations miss the point, Shinn insists. The U.S. steel industry can compete with foreign manufacturers in many respects if given an adequate opportunity, he says, and some transportation agencies are too anxious to exploit loopholes in existing “Buy American” laws and regulations. One rule, for example, allows the agency a cost waiver when the price of U.S. products exceeds similar foreign products by six percent, which Shinn says is too low. Further, a longer lead time for bidding on the Verrazano-Narrows steel contract could have allowed a U.S. producer to assemble a competitive bid, Shinn contends. And if government agencies like the MTA and the Port Authority repeatedly ignore the currency manipulation practices and subsidies of foreign governments that allow overseas companies the advantage in material pricing, then U.S steel will be permanently shut out of participation in the market to rebuild and improve U.S. transportation infrastructure, he says.

One positive aspect of the September meeting between USW and the New York-area transport bosses, Shinn adds, was the inclusion of representatives of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. A non-profit venture of the union and union-contracted manufacturing companies, the AAM will become involved in coordinating government agency contract procedures to ensure full participation and fair treatment of unionized American companies in the future, says Shinn.

AAM officials, however, remain skeptical that transportation authorities will actually allow such measures to be taken. “I’m pleased that AAM’s team opened a constructive dialogue with the MTA. However, after a major outsourcing event like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, it is natural that U.S. manufacturers and workers remain skeptical that this won’t be repeated in the future,” AAM President Scott Paul stated in an e-mail comment to Working In These Times.

“As we move forward from this missed opportunity to create American jobs, AAM will be stepping up its monitoring of major bridge and public works projects nationally. We’re pleased that MTA is willing to cooperate and support this effort. With the cooperation of MTA and other transportation officials, we know that these projects can be made here in America by domestic fabricators using U.S.-made steel and manufactured goods with American workers at the ready,” Paul added.

Shinn say that he, too, is wary of the promises of government officials. “I don’t think MTA did the due diligence they should have,” on the Verrazano-Narrows project, he says, and “we’ll just have to wait and see if they are serious” about a broader commitment to sourcing contracts in the United States. He continues, “They gave us credible promises, but the proof is going be what they actually do in practice.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 1, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog


  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness


Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.