An ironic twist, RIOC removes offensive disability access sign


Yesterday, the offensive disability access sign confronting Blackwell House visitors was dug out and removed. The historic location is the working home of RIOC CEO Shelton J. Haynes. His office is, also, not ADA accessible. The irony? It came on the day that Governor Kathy Hochul appointed the state’s first Chief Disability Officer. But she had nothing to do with it and, in fact, had allowed the sign to linger since September.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Offensive Disability Access Sign Uprooted

Blackwell House’s Main Street entrance is free of the offensive disability access sign for the first time since last summer.

For a community that, at its inception, prided itself for its commitment to handicapped access, it was a giant step down. Roosevelt Island was among the first communities with barrier free sidewalks, now standard across the nation. Residents needing wheels for getting around did as well here as anywhere else in the world.

Those values held, for the most part, into 2016 with RIOC’s then CEO Susan Rosenthal stepping up, filling a large funding gap for the Hope Memorial in Southpoint Park.

Disability Association President Wendy Hersh cut the ribbon, opening the FDR Hope Memorial, last summer. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright were on hand.

But the back story was largely untold. It opened a year late, slipping off RIOC’s horizon until The Daily helped prod Haynes into moving on it.

Future home of the FDR Hope Memorial, abandoned and lost in weeds in 2020, although the artwork was completed, ready to install, years before..

But RIOC’s disregard did not end there. In the summer of 2021, against community opposition, Haynes awarded himself a new office in Blackwell House. The 18th Century farmhouse had been restored, using community funds, to authenticity, and it welcomed visitors. But Haynes seized the second floor, even knowing it was not ADA compliant.

Physically challenged visitors must climb the stairs or stay away. Then came the offensive disability access sign. An arrow first directed wheelchairs toward bushes. If able to plow through the bushes, disabled visitors could find their way through a construction site. In September, the arrow was reversed:

The wheelchair access sign, in place since September. RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes passed it when entering his secluded office for six months.

Enter Wendy Hersh

In the months since Haynes took office and rearranged RIOC in June, 2020, it grew clear that the state agency could no longer be shamed into correcting bad behavior. It started with an aggressive attack on the Wildlife Freedom Foundation after its leader led protests against demolishing much of Southpoint Park. Led by Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson, RIOC suddenly began demanding rent or the closing of its animal sanctuary.

Public shaming in the press had no effect on Haynes’s close ally, but finally State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright stepped in, saving the nonprofit and the animals it harbored.

In spite of numerous reports, though, no one could persuade Haynes to take down the offensive disability access sign… Until Wendy Hersh stepped in. Hersh leads the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association but is probably best known for creating and managing the free food pantry that helped hundreds of families through the pandemic.

Last week, while out of town, Hersh called Haynes and discussed issues with the sign. This week, she called with a reminder. Next day, the sign came down.

It was no small feat. Previous efforts to engage elected officials – including Hochul, who ultimately runs RIOC – failed to move Haynes. Even appeals to unelected volunteers, like Community Board 8 representative Lynne Strong-Shinozaki, failed. Unsurprisingly, RIOC’s board, pledged to oversee Haynes and his operatives, sat on their hands when confronted.

But at least for a day, Wendy Hersh got RIOC to do the right thing. It only took six months.

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