That incident placed on full display an attitude towards the disabled—insensitive and imperious—that advocates for disabled New Yorkers say their constituency has suffered throughout Bloomberg's tenure. In looking at Bloomberg's record on disability issues, a regular theme emerges: that he has simply not prioritized expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. Whenever a competing priority emerges, people with disabilities feel they lose out.
"The city's position [on disability issues] is very defensive," says Marvin Wasserman, former executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID). "It's, ‘We're doing the best we can. We're not violating the law; we're the experts. Screw you.'"
The disabled are disproportionately poor and unemployed. "In New York City, there is a tremendous employment gap between people with and without disabilities, and earnings lag behind for people with disabilities," says Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY).
According to data from the Disability Statistics Center at Cornell, drawn from the 2011 American Community Survey, the estimated employment rate of the 425,781 people with disabilities in New York City ages 18-64 in 2011 was 28.4 percent. For New Yorkers without disabilities, it was 69.2 percent.
This dramatic disparity can also be found at the state and national level. But failure to address the inequality is the central disappointment of Bloomberg's mayoralty for the disability community, and some advocates speculate that the economic limitations of the disabled partially explain Bloomberg’s attitude towards them.
"The man doesn't have a lot of experience with people with disabilities," says Edith Prentiss, vice-president for legislative affairs at Disabled in Action of Metro New York. "It's not part of his milieu; it's not part of his cohort. People with disabilities don't jet off to Bermuda."
Taxi battle angers advocates
In order to hold a job you must be able to get to it. One of the reasons disabled unemployment is so high is that the city's transportation infrastructure remains largely impossible to navigate for people with mobility limitations. This is not entirely within the mayor's control: Most subway stations are not wheelchair-accessible, but responsibility for that lies with the MTA, not City Hall. However, advocates say Bloomberg has not made improving city-controlled alternatives a priority.
Bloomberg passed on the opportunity to make taxis, a major component of New York's transportation system, wheelchair accessible. City Hall heavily promoted the virtues of the "Taxi of Tomorrow." But when selecting a design, Bloomberg refused entreaties from the disability community—and the city comptroller and public advocate, among others—to choose a wheelchair-accessible design. "Bloomberg was obstinate and adamant about not making accessible taxis," says James Weissman, senior vice-president and general counsel for the United Spinal Association.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) thinks that their solution is the ideal compromise: 2,000 holders of new taxi medallions will have accessible cars, in addition to the 233 already in circulation. "It's not an efficient way to go about it, making them all accessible," says Alan Fromberg, a spokesman for the TLC. "It's extremely costly. It costs an additional $15,000 to modify [the Taxi of Tomorrow] to wheelchair accessibility."
Fromberg argues that the oft-cited analogy to London, where the entire taxi fleet is accessible, is inappropriate. "The London cab is not accessible to the U.S. standard," he says. "The U.S. standard is more stringent. The ramp in London is much more steep, which is not legal in the United States."
But disability advocates find Bloomberg's explanations unconvincing. Bloomberg claimed that taxi drivers are opposed to accessible cabs because riders in them sit farther away from the driver, thus preventing the driver from establishing a rapport with the passenger to earn a bigger tip. As anyone who uses New York taxis knows, for the vast majority of rides, cabbies talk on their phones or listen to the radio. Even if Bloomberg's theory were true, advocates say, it's an offensively weak reason to deny disabled New Yorkers equal access to a vital mode of transportation. "Every time Bloomberg speaks on taxis, people with disabilities got more outraged," says Wasserman.
Bloomberg also maintains that accessible cabs are less comfortable for non-disabled passengers. Disability advocates suspect the real issue is that cab drivers don't want to pick up passengers with disabilities because they may take longer to enter and exit.
The federal government has filed suit against the city to require more accessible taxis in the fleet. "The taxi thing was insulting to people with disabilities," says Weissman. "The governor supported [accessible taxis], the state legislature supported it, and Bloomberg opposed it and won."
The TLC promises that their full slate of proposed reforms, such as the street hail system for livery car services, will improve accessibility. "While the legal challenge on the issue of whether street hails would infringe on the business of yellow cabs, and the budgetary aspect of selling an additional 2,000 wheelchair accessible medallions tend to get more attention, the fact that a full 20 percent of the [outer]-borough taxis must be accessible and available via hail and phone arrangement is an important and needed component to our efforts to advance accessibility," writes Fromberg in an email.