Free man on a wheelchair

From Caring Then to Disrespect Now, Roosevelt Island’s Big Fall


The sad death of activist Judy Heumann reminds us of Roosevelt Island’s big fall from its one-time niche of gentle inclusion. Heumann flipped perceptions about people with disabilities, a bold, caring stance that fit this community, but that was once upon a time.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

When we moved to Roosevelt Island, circa 1990, one thing – among many -that stood out was the commitment to barrier-free designs everywhere. The curb cuts for easy wheeled access we take for granted were an innovation – on every corner.

By then, I’d spent a decade working with people with disabilities, mainly in finding decent work opportunities for them. With that and the experience of growing up with close relatives struggling with severe disabilities, this community committed to making life as normal as possible for everyone was the place for me.

Wheelchairs were common on Main Street as were full-body carts piloted by neighbors freed by modern innovations.

“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example,” she said. “It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”

Judy Heumann quoted on NPR.

Empowered by a new perspective on physical challenges, people with disabilities were invited into the daily lives of the middle class in America.

That’s how Jim Bates, Roosevelt Island’s pioneering activist saw it. “Able, not disabled,” was his motto. But that was before Roosevelt Island’s big fall from grace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: A Brief Overview

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. Employment, transportation and access to public places are included.

The ADA also requires that public places be made accessible to people with disabilities. That area hit Roosevelt Island hard under RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes in the big fall. As just a sign of how far we’ve dropped. Haynes’s own new office is not ADA compliant, and his protector, Governor Kathy Hochul, routinely looks the other way.

The ADA was passed because of the long history of discrimination against people with disabilities. Until then, people with disabilities were often excluded from participating in society simply because of their disability. This could mean being denied a job, access to public places or being forced to live in institutions.

The ADA changed all of that – in theory – by guaranteeing people with disabilities the same rights as everyone else. It also requires that public places be made accessible to people with disabilities.

This includes things like installing wheelchair ramps and providing Braille signage.

A precipitous fall? In 2021, this disgraceful sign – directing wheelchairs to use the steps – stood outside Blackwell House for over six months. It’s at the Main Street entrance to Shelton Haynes’x office, which is not ADA-compliant either. Appeals up the chain all the way to Hochul’s office were ignored.

RIOC’s Big Fall from Decency

Watching Roosevelt Island’s precipitous fall from a place of sensitivity and caring to one of effective indifference jars social consciousness. For the most part, people with disabilities lack the authority and power of other groups. They sometimes come begging for parity with other citizens.

But in RIOC’s case under Shelton Haynes, the raw disregard for their legal rights is jarring.

It’s not just the reversal of its barrier-free commitment and thick-skinned approach, it’s the practical.

Since parking opened in the Motorgate parking garage, RIOC recognized the outsized challenges of disabled access by allowing free parking. Recently and without prior notice, the state agency that never gets it wrong erased that privilege.

Their rationale was bogus, a cover for more money-grubbing from residents. And Haynes turned a cold shoulder to a mountain of appeals. As a special note, Haynes and RIOC employees park free in Motorgate and elsewhere on the Island.

How low can you go? With Haynes and Hochul in charge, rock bottom may be a long way off.

The Roosevelt Island Daily is always free to read. But our expenses are not. Publishing has costs beyond the human ones of writing and reporting. We appreciate your generous contribution in support our work. Thank you.

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