During a recent District 5 candidate forum, City Council hopeful Rebecca Lamorte consistently pointed out when the topic at hand – whether it be congestion pricing or bike lane safety enforcement – was also an issue of accessibility for disabled New Yorkers, including herself. Lamorte suffers from a degenerative nerve syndrome in her leg after she was pushed on the subway in 2013, and now navigates Manhattan with limited mobility. In policy discussions traditionally dictated by able-bodied politicians and lawmakers, it’s a perspective that is often missing.
By bringing that perspective to a highly contested Council race, Lamorte hopes those in power across the city will start to think the way she thinks: by centering disabled communities when crafting policy. She took another step in that effort last week in unveiling an expansive platform aimed at achieving disability justice in New York City.
The platform – which Lamorte says will be an accessibility and inclusion overhaul in New York – is extensive, touching on COVID-19, transportation, education, policing and public safety, small businesses, housing and economic development, arts and culture, healthcare, employment, as well as community-based social services and awareness.
The long list of policy goals includes: Making every subway station and method of public transit fully accessible and ADA-compliant, integrate District 75 schools in more communities, increase funding for grants to help small businesses pay for accessibility updates, expand eligibility to disabled New Yorkers for at-home COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as building housing that is both affordable and accessible for those with varying disabilities.
In a recent interview, Lamorte spoke to Our Town about her disability justice platform and being a voice for the community.
What are the goals of your disability justice platform?
The main goal is to start by elevating the conversation. So many people for decades have been fighting for disability justice and we’re still not seeing that translate into legislation, into policy, into meaningful change for disabled New Yorkers. When beginning to craft this policy, I wanted to use it as a starting point for our campaign, for New York City in this moment of 2021, to really look within and have a reckoning, and notice how intersectional accessibility and disability justice is, how it’s not just gaining physical access to a space, it’s so much more than that, and then use these individual platform areas to illustrate how broad the need for change is. Accessibility affects people in so many different ways and I want to use this platform to legislate and affect that change.
You use the word “intersectionality” in introducing this platform. What does it mean to be intersectional in terms of disability justice?
It means that in every policy, every piece of legislation, every decision you make, you are centering the needs of disabled workers and disabled Americans. Stopping to think, OK, how does this policy affect a wheelchair user? How does this policy affect a blind New Yorker? How does this policy affect a deaf New Yorker? How does this policy affect a mobility-impaired New Yorker, like me? And that’s everything from physical access to space to support services for students in schools, for housing affordability and workforce needs. Intersectionality is about approaching every single issue, even if it’s not a quote unquote accessibility or a disability issue, by meeting with those issues in mind and centering those voices.
What do you think are the most urgent accessibility issues on the Upper East Side and how would this platform address those issues?
Well, none of our subways are accessible so we need to fully update the Lexington Avenue line and make it fully accessible. Before the Q train opened we didn’t have any accessible stops in the neighborhood. For example, I couldn’t take the subway for over a year. So we need to start with that. There’s been community opposition to putting in elevators, for example, at 68th Street and that breaks my heart. It hurts me as a disabled New Yorker when I’m at community board meetings and I hear my neighbors saying we don’t need this, it’s going to ruin our streetscape, we won’t be able to walk around the sidewalk. Well, what if you already can’t get around your city? It’s not just about your streetscape outside of your immediate building when it comes to access. We can make it work for everyone. Also our libraries and parks: we had a library on York Avenue that only in the last year or so, like before COVID, I believe, became fully accessible. That’s unconscionable. That’s where we tell our seniors to go for support, that’s where we tell students to go for support. How do you go there for support for assistance if you can’t get into the physical space? If then when you’re inside, you don’t have the support services you need as a blind or a deaf New York? Those are a few places where accessibility needs to start.
How do you re-wire able-bodied people’s brains so they start centering disabled people when they think about policy, too?
It’s definitely difficult. Even at community board meetings, there are times I feel that if I wasn’t there to speak up, or if other disabled New Yorkers on the board weren’t there to speak up, the issue wouldn’t be elevated. It starts with awareness, education and having conversations with people in your community and people in your life in order to continue understanding why this issue is so important and why we need to be prioritizing the needs of disabled New Yorkers like we do for so many other New Yorkers.
It’s not easy to do, but it’s something that I do see more able-bodied people taking on, especially in this Council cycle. And I’m just hopeful that they then continue it and it isn’t simply a talking point for them, because that’s also a part of it, unfortunately. I hope it’s not just awareness, talking point and then that’s it: a couple bullet points on a website. I want them to walk around their community see one step into a bodega and go, “Hey, that’s an accessibility issue,” because that’s what life is like for me, and that’s what life is like for so many disabled New Yorkers.
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“It hurts me as a disabled New Yorker when I’m at community board meetings and I hear my neighbors saying we don’t need this, it’s going to ruin our streetscape ...Well, what if you already can’t get around your city?” City Council candidate Rebecca Lamorte