This op-ed by Karp Strategies Managing Principal and CEO, Rebecca Karp, originally appeared in Crain's New York Business on October 28, 2022.
Although this feels like the most "normal" fall we've had since Covid-19 first arrived, there are still thousands of new coronavirus cases every day. Meanwhile, many people—including me and 20 million other American adults—are living with long Covid and its range of debilitating symptoms, which can persist for months or years.
As New York's leaders pursue an infrastructure-led recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is our moral and economic imperative to ensure that accessibility remains a priority, even as agencies are faced with trimmed budgets. Disability access is an issue that impacts one in five New Yorkers—more than 3 million people. It cannot be treated as anything less than a key metric for how we judge the success of development projects and the way in which we value our people.
As an urban planner dedicated to inclusivity, I'm thrilled by the federal funding allocated to New York's recovery from the economic downturn and pandemic. But I'm equally concerned that the money will be spent on ableist patterns that have hardened over time.
My firm works across sectors to create equitable projects. I'm always thinking about how physical spaces impact people's daily lives. Too often I see how the issue of accessibility gets lost in the planning process.
When we do not center accessibility, we're not only failing to realize a vision that reflects the needs of all the people who use public spaces and infrastructure, we're also excluding millions of people from equal opportunity to employment and participation in regional economies. The cost of excluding people with disabilities runs up to 7% of the GDP for some countries.
New York's inefficient infrastructure building and maintenance process has resulted in an average delay of 90 months on projects such as park and library improvements. One of the consequences of the delays is that accessibility gets held up in a regulatory maze.
For example, Gov. Kathy Hochul has committed to working with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to make 95% of subway stations accessible by 2055. Coming 32 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, the initiative is overdue. But the time frame is an insult to people with disabilities.
No small task
Getting infrastructure built in New York City is no simple feat. There are structural reforms we can make to the planning process, however, to ensure better accessibility.
To begin with, the city and state should require that every policy and planning project integrate a disability access checklist, informed by the disability community.
The city and state should offer financial incentives for developers to center accessibility in their projects. And the city needs to ensure building code regulations are updated in a way that supports accessibility infrastructure such as ramps and accessible bathrooms.
Beyond policy reform, we have to pursue a public-awareness campaign that increases opportunities for training in the private sector on disability access, and emphasizes it as a core component of diversity, equity and inclusion training. We also should pursue learning tours to exchange knowledge with countries with exemplary accessible infrastructure, like Japan.
I shouldn't have to fight to simply exist in this city. Yet I and others who are disabled or sick are expected to advocate to access infrastructure for which we already pay taxes.
As we reimagine infrastructure to meet the needs of New Yorkers, we must recognize the diverse experiences of those living with disabilities.
New York has unimaginable talent across sectors, unprecedented funds for rebuilding, and dynamic and cooperative leadership. Let's be a city that builds infrastructure for all its residents.