The passing of a giant figure in New York political history, three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, was also the passing of a giant figure in New York disability rights history.
Mario Cuomo supported disability rights advocates, who were seeking access to New York City’s transit system, when almost no other politicians did. As lieutenant governor to Gov. Hugh Carey, he was given the responsibility – probably considered unimportant by the governor’s office – of being New York’s representative for the International Year of the Disabled activities. He quickly tuned in to the needs and rights of people with disabilities and became an advocate and supporter.
In 1982, three years after Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (EPVA, now United Spinal) began litigation against New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) he was in a grueling primary for governor with then New York City Mayor Edward Koch. Koch opposed access to mass transit.
Koch stated that it would be cheaper to pick everyone up in limousines than to put lifts on buses and elevators in the subway. EPVA/United Spinal had obtained an injunction stopping renovation in many subway stations unless elevators were included.
Cuomo disagreed with Koch as well as the MTA, the New York Times editorial board, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and just about every democratic and liberal New York City politician with two notable exceptions. There even before Cuomo, were then City Council member Ruth Messinger and New York state Assemblyman Alan Hevesi. Cuomo’s support was significant.
People with disabilities including, recently deceased disability advocate Terry Moakley, Denise Figueroa, who currently directs the independent living center in Troy, N.Y. and is on the board of the transit agency in the Albany area, and I campaigned for Cuomo against Koch in the primary. Cuomo, of course, defeated Koch and served 12 years as governor.
In the early days of his first term he brought MTA representatives and Terry and I to Albany where we spent a day with gubernatorial staff. The staff was charged by the governor to sort fact from fiction regarding transit accessibility.
MTA presented architectural drawings of several stations using an easel and pointer. They picked extremely difficult stations to make accessible, like curved stations and elevated stations that run above roadways making it difficult to locate elevators.
However, there were accessibility solutions, albeit expensive ones, proposed for each station. When Terry and I finally presented we said that up until that moment MTA has been telling the governor that access to the subway was impossible. They now proved it was possible, just expensive.
The decision of whether or not it was “worth it” was up to the governor. The staff and the governor agreed with us and decided it was worth it, but only at key stations – not every station. MTA Chair Richard Ravitch had refused to renovate any stations until the legislature changed the law we used to obtain our injunction requiring elevators. The governor said that even if such a law was passed he would veto it.
He appointed Boston’s transit chief Robert Kiley MTA chair who said at his first press conference that he would settle a dispute with NYC’s disability community and provide access at last to transit. In June 1984 at the end of the legislative session, Gov. Cuomo basically locked disability rights plaintiffs’ representatives in a second floor conference room of the state capitol with MTA representatives and we hammered out a deal – key stations, lifts on buses, Access-A-Ride.
In January 1985 a signing ceremony was held to celebrate this great victory at Grand Central Station. Present were Koch, the Governor, EPVA Exec. Dir. James Peters and dozens of disability activists.
The requirements imposed on MTA by disability advocates were achieved because Mario Cuomo rendered legitimate their discrimination claims by his strong and eloquent support. The structure of the settlement became the structure of the settlement of an EPVA suit against the Philadelphia transit system and then became the core requirements for transit systems in the U.S. when they were incorporated into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.
A few years ago I met the Governor at the Manhattan law firm where he was a partner, Wilkie Farr. He remembered those days, expressed support for our continuing efforts to gain more subway access and recalled how even the most liberal editorial pages and right-thinking politicians thought he was on the wrong side of our struggle with transit. Gov. Cuomo put our movement on the map in New York, and as New York goes on rights issues, so goes the nation.
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