The Human Rights Goal

Ramona Ortega (pictured) and Lawrence Carter-Long


Disability advocates in New York City had cause to celebrate a week ago as dignitaries
gathered at the United Nations to sign a landmark treaty that would protect the rights of people with disabilities.

For the world’s largest minority –- there are 650 million people with disabilities globally –- the treaty ensures society doesn’t just act charitably now and then toward those with disabilities, but rather makes their equality a guarantee, a concrete policy.
More than 80 countries put their name to that promise -– but the United States, sadly, did not.

The U.S. claims the Americans with Disabilities Act already addresses the treaty’s stipulations, but right here in New York City, people with disabilities are left behind daily.

Consider the mere act of getting around New York: less than 1 percent of licensed yellow taxis are accessible to wheelchair users; none cover the needs of blind, deaf or visually
impaired; and most subway and railroad stations in the five boroughs do not accommodate wheelchairs.

These disparities persist, in employment, health care, education and more, in spite of the legal apparatus the ADA offers to prevent and challenge them. A better policy would prevent these inequalities –- an unintentional, but ingrained form of discrimination –- from happening in the first place.

A new law will be proposed this month in the City Council, called Human Rights GOAL, making human rights a measure of good governance. It would require city agencies to assess their own policies and proactively identify and resolve practices that, intentionally or not, discriminate against the disabled and other minorities through hiring practices, service delivery and basic rights to things like education.

After San Francisco passed a law with these guidelines, the city increased the number of women hired in non-traditional positions and appointed the first woman of color to the airport commission.

When the New York City Council tried to pass a similar bill last session, the mayor claimed it was unnecessary –- even though it took a lawsuit and Justice Department investigation
to get the FDNY to recruit more minorities, and just over two weeks ago the DOT was sued by the U.S. Attorney’s office for not hiring enough women.

The United States might not have the leadership to commit to a treaty granting people with disabilities inviolable human rights, but that doesn’t mean New York can’t put an end to its unintended discriminatory practices. Let’s hope the mayor and City Council have the better sense to sign on to what is right.

Ramona Ortega is the director of the Urban Justice Center Human Rights Project and Lawrence Carter-Long is the director of advocacy for the New York City Disabilities Network.


PHOTO: Ramona Ortega.  At top of page, alongside headline.