With a new accessibility mapping initiative underway, Upper West Siders are taking first steps toward making the neighborhood more disability-friendly.
Ronnie Raymond, a 93rd Street resident and member of Citizens for an Accessible West Side, introduced a project to map restaurant and business accessibility on the Upper West Side at the Community Board 7 Health and Human Services Committee meeting this Tuesday.
Businesses and restaurants may be classified as being fully, partially, or not accessible based on their entrances, interiors, and restrooms.
The Community Accessibility Project has partnered with the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, which has mapped the accessibility of about 1,000 locations citywide and 200 on the Upper West Side, Raymond said.
Raymond, who uses a wheelchair, said she has encountered difficulties at Upper West Side businesses and in her own apartment building—experiences that demonstrated the challenge of advocating for concrete accessibility improvements.
Even restaurants with bathrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have doors that Raymond said her wheelchair can’t pass through.
She also noted that her apartment building failed to act on its promise to make a three-inch front doorstep accessible until she contacted a representative from the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
“It was the 11th hour until they finally did something,” Raymond said. “Nobody’s dogging them.”
According to Raymond, determining how to map disabilities consistently is a difficulty for CAP, in addition to finding more support for its initiative.
Raymond said that fewer than 25 percent of buildings on the Upper West Side are ADA-compliant and less than half are accessible, adding that enforcement of ADA regulations in newly renovated buildings is often spotty.
Committee members at the meeting agreed that even stopgap measures such as portable ramps are better than nothing, although they are still not an ADA-compliant solution.
Rebecca Godlewicz, liaison to Community Board 7 from the Manhattan borough president’s office, said that the office is currently “trying to see what the realities are” to move forward with the project.
“We’re just starting to talk about it,” Godlewicz said, adding that contention over modifying landmarks and historic districts was another concern.
Kevin Cremin, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School who focuses on disability litigation, said that ADA regulations are tighter on new renovations, focusing more on barrier removal in older construction. He explained that in many cases, removing barriers is not incredibly burdensome.
Cremin, who taught a seminar class that required students to map accessibility on the Upper West Side, said that most Upper West Side businesses—like many of New York City’s buildings—are inaccessible.
“Some significant accessibility improvements can be made with a small amount of cost and effort. Moreover, there are tax incentives and grant programs available” that offset costs, Cremin said. “If their businesses are more accessible for people with disabilities, then they’d be potentially increasing the pool of customers that they’d have.”
CB7 Chair Mark Diller said after the meeting that CB7 was in the “early stages” of pursuing this issue and that he could work with constituents to “make strides to make more things accessible.”
Still, Diller said that targeting less-than-accessible buildings would lead to issues with settlement lawsuits from “an opportunistic band of folks” who target non-compliant companies, requiring them to leave and pay money without actually fixing the inaccessibility problem.
Diller suggested at the meeting that focusing on accessible buildings as role models would be smarter than targeting noncompliant businesses.
In response, Raymond said that she would speak to her coworkers about modifying the CAP map so that it highlights only accessible buildings.
While Cremin agreed that these lawsuits have recently attracted negative attention, he stressed that most litigation focuses on improving situations.
“I think that first of all, businesses have had a long time to comply with the law,” he said. “And most efforts by municipalities, organizations, or individuals to push businesses to comply with the law is motivated by the desire to increase accessibility for people with disabilities.”
Committee members also discussed ways to develop the mapping project, including developing a smartphone app, creating a directory, or posting signage in restaurant windows.
Although Raymond said that Zagat was reluctant to include disability information in its rating and that keeping a current and accurate record would be difficult, however there is a citywide initiative to make accessibility part of the health inspection record.
Cremin said that the government could enforce accessibility standards more stringently, and that community members could make a difference, too.
In Brooklyn, the Center for Independence for the Disabled has started a “Barrier Busters” program in which volunteer members work with local businesses.
He added that he would like to see more of an emphasis on “thinking about disabilities in a very broad sense.”
“I think that it’s always important for efforts like this to focus not only on people who use wheelchairs, but also to consider the barriers facing people who are blind, the deaf community,” and those with mental disabilities, Cremin said.
Raymond said that efforts such as letter writing were fairly straightforward, but more aggressive measures could bolster support.
“It’s the follow-up that is the difficulty,” Raymond said.