YPC Disability Workshop

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“You showed me that anything is possible” was one reaction from a Brooklyn College Academy high school student after listening to a panel on disabilities hosted by the Young Professionals Committee (YPC) for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF) last week. The panel, called Disability in the City, specifically strove to help the Brooklyn College Academy students better understand issues and obstacles related to accessibility in New York City and generally, learn about how each of the panelists live normal lives despite their disabilities.

The panel was made up of four adults with disabilities – three living with varying degrees of Cerebral Palsy (CP), and one with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic condition causing brittle bones and bone fractures with little or no apparent cause. Each of the panelists shared their personal experiences so that the students could feel what is what like to be in their shoes.

As the Founder and Co-Chair of the YPC, I lead the conversation with a brief description of statistics on New York City’s methods of accessible transportation. Research shows only 85 of 468 total NYC subway stations are considered wheelchair accessible by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) – which means that, theoretically, wheelchair users can access less than 20% of the city’s subway stations. Realistically, the number of accessible subway stations at any given time is probably even lower than 85 as mechanical issues often cause subway elevators to breakdown without notice. We find a similar reality within the NYC bus system – on paper, all NYC buses can accommodate wheelchair passengers, but in daily life, many wheelchair users encounter frequent obstacles to riding the bus around the city – either the rush hour crowd does not want to move aside to let the wheelchair on the bus before them, forcing them to wait around for the next one in lieu of fighting the crowd, or, the bus is too crowded for a chair to board, or, the bus driver claims they cannot operate the bus ramp. These inconveniences can add hours of unfair wait time for wheelchair users navigating NYC via public transit.

I also briefly discussed Title I of the American With Disabilities Act that allows for persons with disabilities reasonable accommodations to their job or work environment. I recently had trouble with getting to and from my office and unfortunately, had to fight to receive a minor accommodation. I shared my story in hopes of teaching the students the value of self-advocacy and speaking up for yourself.

Kyle Khachadurian, friend of the YPC, voiced the importance of consideration when it came to traveling in NYC. As someone with mild CP, he shared that its physically taxing for him to stand for a long subway ride, but many times, other riders do not offer him their seat. It probably would not hurt for most people to look up from their smartphone to see if another rider may benefit from taking their seat. Kyle also shared that in his case, he had it “pretty good” until after college, because that is when he realized how difficult it could be to get around on public transportation sometimes.

Jessica De La Rosa, friend of the YPC and this year’s reigning Ms. Wheelchair New York, reminded us that disabilities do not equate to inabilities. Jessica and most of her family members live with either Osteogenesis Imperfecta or another type of severe physical disability, but she does not seem to perceive that as an insurmountable circumstance. She shared with us her positive outlook, her drive, and determination to live life to the fullest. As Ms. Wheelchair New York, she is an advocate for people with disabilities and seeks to raise awareness about inclusion in school systems. She often takes care of her young niece and nephews who are also in wheelchairs because of their Muscular Dystrophy. Jessica shared with us that often times she sees her niece and nephews being left out of field trips and social activities with their peers without good reason. She went on to say that when its time for a field trip, the school will almost always initially state that her niece and nephews cannot participate because either, there is no space on the bus, the destination is not accessible, or there is not enough chaperones. Jessica will do everything she can to get them on the trip because, she’s found, that most of the time, these excuses are either untrue or easily solvable. Jessica hopes that advocacy work and inclusion initiatives will allow all children to be treated equally in schools so that children with disabilities feel good about their place in the classroom.

Jessica also shared how inconvenient it can be to get around for her and her wheelchair bound family members. She has experienced being stuck on a subway platform for hours because the elevator stopped working right before she got there, ridiculously long waits for both Access-A-Ride, the city’s paratransit service, and for an accessible NYC taxicab.

Last but certainly not least, Andrew Pilkington, filmmaker and friend of the YPC, has CP in a way that makes it difficult for him to speak, or fully control his arms and leg movements. But, he lives his life with a smile on his face and is following his dream of filmmaking despite any physical obstacles. He taught himself how to type on a keyboard with his nose, and he uses his right foot to manipulate the computer mouse. He wrote and directed 2 feature films (so far) and has no signs of slowing down or stopping.

Andrew shared that people often assume that because he is in a wheelchair and has difficult with speech, he must also have a mental disability. People sometimes speak to Andrew in certain tones or want to make decisions for him. Andrew also told the students that getting around in New York City can be tricky because its difficult to catch an accessible cab, and he can’t always rely on the Access-A-Ride service. He pointed out that accessible cabs often create uncomfortable situations for him because there is no accessible credit card machine near his chair. So if Andrew is traveling in an accessible cab alone, he has to trust the taxi driver to take his card and swipe it for him.

The students of Brooklyn College Academy heard our stories and said that we changed their perspective. Each of the 20 students in the room shared a statement after the panel and their comments were full of words like “inspiring”, “impactful”, and “thank you”. It seems that the students learned to see disabled people like all people. They thanked us because hearing from us made them feel that they too could conquer their own issues and obstacles.

I, for one, would like to thank the students for taking the time to listen and get to know us. The disabled community would greatly benefit from more inclusion and understanding. And I like to think that with this workshop, we took a tiny step toward that goal.