As a special education teacher for more than 13 years, I have worked with hundreds of students with disabilities. Held to the same standards as their general education peers, my students have taught me more about grit and perseverance than probably any other life experience.
But we live in a city that was not designed for everyone. And despite the fact that there are laws in place, our friends, family and neighbors with disabilities are so often left behind.
So how do we reimagine our city so that it works for everyone?
First, we have to shift the conversation. We all have family members, friends and neighbors who have disabilities. While there are cases where specific accommodations must be made, we should not “otherize” people by designing a system for some, then asking how we can accommodate others.
We should instead ask, “How can we universally design a system that works for everyone?” and include everyone in our infrastructure, while recognizing that everyone benefits from accessible systems.
To illustrate, consider something as simple as entrances to a building, which are often either a ramp or stairs. A single step can prevent some from entering a building, where the ramp is not limiting. While essential for people in wheelchairs, ramps also benefit older adults, bikers and families with shopping carts. I myself used a ramp for years while I pushed my twins around in their double stroller.
The ramp serves all. The stairs serve some.
There are reportedly nearly 1 million people with disabilities in New York City, and another million older adults. And it is important to remember that not all disabilities are visible, and mental illness can be a hidden disability that also deserves support and compassion. From small business to public transit to education, our city’s infrastructure and systems are currently failing to meet the needs of all New Yorkers.
Our local establishments would benefit from the universal design mindset, though retrofitting small business or training employees may be financially difficult. The city should support our small businesses in making the shift to be more inclusive with tax incentives so as not to cause significant financial burdens.
This would expand the customer base for a business while being fairer and more inclusive to all New Yorkers.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority must make policy decisions with the same mindset when it comes to subway access and paying fares. Recently, other community leaders and I successfully lobbied the MTA to install elevators at a local train station. However, the vast majority of MTA stations are still not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The MTA recently rolled out a contactless payment system, OMNY, on subways, but neglected to install it in accessible entrances. This leaves thousands of disabled riders in the lurch, and treats them as second-class citizens.
Further, we must not undervalue the importance of bus service — the only 100 percent-accessible means of traversing our city, which hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers rely on.
Here in the Northwest Bronx, the buses are vital to our community’s access to the subway and the rest of the city. As we talk about federal bailout money for the MTA and how to secure future funding, improving accessibility and improving bus service must be a priority.
Even prior to the pandemic, our education system was not meeting the needs of our students with disabilities, and these challenges have only gotten worse.
Every student is different and may have specific needs. But like our physical spaces, our educational system must first be universally designed.
Most of the students I work with have learning and emotional needs that are not always as apparent as a physical disability. We have whittled our education system to a handful of high-stakes tests, which do not always address the needs of children with disabilities.
We must re-imagine schools so that our curricula and assessments are centered on empathy, community, problem-solving, social-emotional learning, and mental health learning, so that all students receive the skills and knowledge they need to thrive long after they graduate, while incorporating experiential learning and vocational skills.
Particularly when it comes to mental health, we see the effects of ignoring the mental health needs of our children play out through adulthood. Future funding and legislation must incentivize the implementation of learning that will benefit all students.
Supporting people with disabilities is not about creating a system for some and accommodating others. It’s about creating a system that works for everyone.
As we build our city back, we must work together to ensure no matter what, no New Yorker gets left behind, and that our city becomes more accessible for everyone.
The author is a special education teacher, and a city council candidate.