Q&A: Disabilities activist Chris Noel on NYC transportation, housing & ignorance
Chris Noel, 36, outreach coordinator for Independence Care Systems, is also the lead plaintiff in Noel 504 vs. New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, the lawsuit that sought to make all taxicabs accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Q. What do you most want to see in NYC?
A. For all taxis licensed by the TLC to be accessible. In the outer boroughs, there should be car services that provide access to the disabled. The only dispatch service we have now services Manhattan below 110th St. - the most expensive place in NYC - and people who are disabled tend to have lower incomes than able bodied people. The lack of reliable cab service stops a lot of people with disabilities and seniors from having family time and getting around the city as easily as other New Yorkers. If the taxis were accessible, taxpayers would save so much money, because we'd reduce the use of Paratransit: It's not good and it's really expensive - about $75 for every one way ride, whether it's two blocks or 20 blocks.
Q. So where does your lawsuit stand now?
A. We won the first round to make all 13,000 of the new cabs accessible, but the TLC won on appeal. Now we have to wait for the NV200 to be introduced so we can go to court again. The NV 200 wasn't a good choice. Even if it's made accessible, it can only accommodate a person in a wheelchair and one other person. The RFP (request for proposal) should have required that all the cabs be accessible. It could have even specified that the vehicles be built in NY. Did I mention these vans are gas guzzlers?
Q. Why would NYC even entertain having a fleet of cabs that wasn't fully accessible?
A. The money arguments (that accessible cabs would have cost too much) aren't true, because the city could have gotten state and federal grants to defray almost all of the cost. And the NV200 wasn't even the most popular choice in polls given to the public.
Q. Is it true that the new cabs will be even worse for people in non-motorized chairs because those who can transfer themselves in and out of the current cabs won't be able to with the new vans?
A. That's exactly right. The new vans are too high up off the ground. London has a 100% accessible fleet, incidentally. London! I have some friends who went to the ParaOlympics there. They said the cabs are great, but try to find a curb cut! They have a fully accessible taxi fleet, but the cabs have to pull right up to the sidewalks so you can get in and out. How can our cabs not be on par with London? Do you know how much extra money the city would bring in with convention business if we were?
Q. I would have thought accessible, affordable housing for disabled New Yorkers would be a bigger issue than taxi cabs.
A. It is a big issue. A lot of developers build affordable public housing outside of NYCHA with accessible units specifically designed for disabled people, but disabled people are not living in them. The reason is income requirements. A lot of these developments require minimum incomes of $24,000 - $26,000 a year. If you are a person living on SSI or disability, you don't even have a chance to apply because the income requirement is so high. About 75% of the people in wheelchairs are on SSI or disability. The income requirements need to be lowered to about $12,000 a year. I was on short term, then long term, disability myself for about three years.
Q. Why do people who are not disabled have such a hard time realizing why equal access is important?
A. It's the ignorance of man. It just doesn't come to mind that it could be you one day (needing an accommodation) and no one wants to think they, too, could become disabled. I was an account executive in a publishing firm when I slipped and fell eight years ago and fractured a bone in my back and my spinal chord swelled up. I was 28. Becoming disabled is such a psychological and emotional shock. Your personal life and confidence really takes a hit, but then you rebound. When it happens to you - and it can happen to anybody - you see the world with new eyes.
Q. How is New York doing on other accessibility issues?
A. The MTA is supposed to have 100 accessible subway stations (out of 468 stations) by 2015. They're at about 87 now. They're doing well. But they need to reduce that gap between the platform and the trains so our wheels don't get caught, and clean all those elevators. Every single subway elevator smells like urine.
Q. You live in Harlem, but work in Brooklyn. How do you get to work?
A. On the train! I'm lucky, because I live near accessible stops. If the elevators are down, though, it can really take a long time. That's why accessible taxis are so important to disabled New Yorkers.
Q. How is private industry doing in terms of accessibility?
A. Most movie theaters and museums, and every major stadium is accessible. We used to be in the aisles of Madison Square Garden, but they made modifications about two or three years ago that gave us our own seating area. Even when everyone stands up in front of you, you still have a clear line of vision to the stage or the game or whatever is going on. MSG even offers floor seating to people in wheelchairs. That's because they have David Snowden (Jr.) working for them. He's been in a chair for years, so he weighs in on these things. If more businesses had disabled people working for them, businesses would not have the problems (and lawsuits) that they do.