Thursday, December 20, 2012

One Man's Annoying / Aggravating / Funny / Interesting Access Picture

By coincidence I’ve been going to Buffalo Wild Wings quite a bit over the last month or so. The BWW’s on the University of Minnesota campus has a table that is designated for wheelchair users and they do it in what I think is a subtly cool way by carving a small international symbol of access directly into the tabletop. The first time I saw it I got a kick out it. It’s far less in your face than signs that say “Reserved for wheelchair users/disabled/handicap/handicapped/physically challenged/etc.”

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Truckin’

At the time of my diving accident during the summer of 1996 I was driving a 1989 Ford Ranger XLT with an extended cab. I don’t remember why, but when we went through the process of buying me a car my dad and I were strictly on the lookout for 1988-89 Ford Rangers—nothing pre-1987 or post-1990 year ranges—with extended cabs, and no other brands of trucks. I think it had something to do with the look of the front end/grill of those two years of Rangers. My dad and I quickly became experts at spotting Rangers and what year they were. It took plenty of months of searching to find the right one. We got close a few times but ultimately the rejects either had too many miles, too much rust or dents, too high an asking price, etc.

We finally found one that was ideal in all categories. Making it even more the near-perfect fit for me was that it was red in color—my favorite. At first I thought it was a little ugly because the previous owner had some intricate Waldoch-style striped graphics added to the entire length of both sides of it. But it quickly grew on me because it had a unique look to it compared to any other Rangers I came across. In fact, it was so unique that I would get comments from people that I had a real pretty truck, which I always took with an understated polite thanks through gritted teeth because no teenage high school dude wants to be known for driving a “pretty” truck. It’s uniqueness also carried weight with girls that I gave rides to your typical high school hang outs, parties, dates, etc. who would say things like, “I’ve always wanted to go for a ride in this truck.” It always surprised me. Then again, it was probably more likely that it was just because the truck was an extension of me or something like that.

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The previous owner took great care of the truck and really loved it, but she and her husband were starting a family so she upgraded to a Jeep Cherokee. She was so sad to see it go that after we exchanged money and paper work and she handed us the keys she went inside because she didn’t want to see us drive it away. I, on the other hand, was thrilled. I finally had my own car!

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But at the time of the purchase I was still just 15 years old with my learner’s permit and had to wait somewhere in the neighborhood of three months before I could drive the truck on my own. Talk about a serious case of hurry-up-and-wait! My dad gave me the backup set of keys, which were the keys I used when I went on my practice driving sessions with him. As a kind of cool motivational tool he wouldn’t let me use the primary set until I got my driver’s license, and had therefore earned their use. My dad has always been good about setting carrot and stick goals like that. Anyway, the copy of the spare set of keys was made at a Hardware Hank hardware store, and thus my truck was quickly nicknamed “Hank.” We got vanity plates that said Hank and everything, but the fun and cool thing we did was we made them say KNAH so that it would show up as HANK in rearview mirrors like with ambulances. HANK comin’ up behind ya!

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Aside from the frustrating and unyielding wait to drive Hank solo, the other challenge was that it was a five-speed manual transmission so I had to learn how to drive a stick shift. It didn’t come very easily for me.  I remember going for drives with my dad and dreading coming to stoplights or stop signs with lots of cars behind me because it seemed like more often than not I killed the engine once I tried to get going again and it held up traffic. It was perpetually mortifying. The biggest problem was that my truck had a pretty hard clutch. It was the hardest clutch out of any stick shift vehicle I ever drove (retrospectively), so it took some extra effort to get that clutch to gas transition down pat. I had a tendency to over-rev the engine and let the clutch out slowly and my dad really wanted me to make shifting as smooth as possible because otherwise it was too hard on the engine. My dad used to be a part of a car club in high school call the “Cam Busters” and had blown plenty of engines in his hay day of busting cams.

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Before I could drive Hank legally I would do things like sit in it and practice shifting gears with the engine off, which I think is bad for the vehicle but I did it anyway. Plenty of other times I would start it up, keep the clutch down, and rev the engine. When I got a little bolder I would back it in and out of the garage a bunch of times in a row to practice starting and stopping, which as I mentioned was the trickiest aspect of my stick shift driving learning curve. When I got even bolder yet I started driving it down to the end of the street and back again. And in my boldest move yet, I left my street once and went on a mini-joyride for a couple of blocks. But only once because I knew I was driving illegally and didn’t want to risk getting caught. As they read this my parents are learning all of this for the first time, by the way (surprise!). But it was a long, hard wait until I turned sixteen and I couldn’t help not playing with such a shiny new toy.

After I passed my driver’s license test on my 16th birthday I finally got to drive my truck on my own to school the next day, and it was a glorious feeling. I still wasn’t great at driving stick at that point but I became an ace in a short time period of full-time driving. The truck only had a four-cylinder engine so it didn’t have a lot of speed or power but it got me from point A to point B just fine. The only option that truck lacked that I really missed was cruise control, which made maintaining a constant speed during highway travel a challenge. On long road trips I had to keep shifting my weight so my ass cheeks wouldn’t fall asleep and my driving leg wouldn’t cramp up from constantly having my foot pegged to the gas pedal. It was a light bed truck that was rear-wheel drive, so driving in the winter was a challenge sometimes.

To make it more me I hung some red and black checkered fuzzy dice in the back window so they wouldn’t block my view hanging from the rearview mirror. My dad actually disallowed me from hanging anything from the rearview mirror for that reason. I slapped a Wisconsin Badger floating W decal on one side of my back window and a funky multi-colored yin and yang sticker on the other side. Within a few months we installed a new Pioneer tape deck with a six disk cd changer, so it was the best of both worlds musically. The face of the stereo deck was removable for security reasons, which even though I rarely actually removed it for that reason it was still a cool trick to show off.  There were two flip down seats in the back so I could take up to four extra passengers. Shifting gears between a girl’s legs, who insisted she sat in the front middle seat more comfortably straddling the floor console, was always interesting. None of the guy passengers ever did that, of course. But overall it was a good ride that brought me a lot of fun times.

Around the time of my diving accident Dodge changed the style of their Dakota, their Ford Ranger competing small truck series, so that it looked like a mini Dodge Ram and I instantly fell in love. We hung a newspaper clipping that announced the change of style with the picture just below in my hospital room and it travelled with me from Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, WI, where I spent the first two and a half months of my post-SCI rehab, to Craig Hospital in Denver, CO, where I spent my last two rehab months. Just like the spare Hardware Hank keys for hank, that newspaper clipping represented a carrot and stick type motivation for me to kick some ass in rehab because at one point early on my dad said that if I walked again he would buy me that truck as a reward.

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When I went out to Craig I told people that my goal was to leave there using crutches at the least. But although I never gave up on walking again (and still haven’t), at some point while I was out at Craig—without me even realizing it, in retrospect—my desire to attack rehab in order to get stronger and more independent subversively overtook my plans of leaving there on two feet. And part of that included a dose of reality setting in regarding my physical situation—being a wheelchair using quadriplegic who may stay that way indefinitely.

On the other hand, I still had goals of doing things physically that, in retrospect, as a quad I really had no shot of having the strength or independence of doing. One of those things included thinking that I could still transfer into and drive a pickup truck. There was a paraplegic who was going through rehab at the same time as me who had the same inflated ambitions to still drive a truck that I did. Although because he was a para his chances were much better of doing so. Either way, to a Craig therapist’s credit she humored us, even though she essentially knew better, and showed us a video of a guy in a wheelchair transferring into a truck and gave us info about truck transfer options, options to get wheelchairs into the truck, and that kind of thing.

A number of issues quickly sunk my ambitions of driving a truck as a quad. First, was the wheelchair to vehicle transfer itself. While I was going through Craig’s driving program my first training vehicle was some kind of Chevy sedan. I had all I could handle trying to transfer my self into that car on my own—putting the sliding board far enough under my butt, lifting my legs into the car, doing the chair to driver seat transfer, etc. And that was a fairly even, if not slightly downhill transfer—in contrast to transferring upwards into a truck cab seat.

Second, was the logistics of getting my wheelchair into the truck. A lot of people with SCI that drive cars have folding wheelchairs or chairs that break down easily. My manual wheelchair had a rigid frame, which was much better for posture and a reduction of lower back pain, so some of the overhead wheelchair lift chair toppers or truck bed vehicle cranes with single bars that hook onto the chair at the folded point and swing it back into the truck bed for transport wouldn’t work with my chair.

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Third, I lived in Wisconsin and was vulnerable to harsh winter elements at least a quarter of the year, and even if I had found a truck bed chair crane I couldn’t drive around with my wheelchair exposed to snow, sleet, rain, etc.

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At the time there really weren’t any options for truck bed toppers that tilted open automatically with enough clearance to accommodate a stand up, rigid manual chair. And there most certainly weren’t any truck bed topper wheelchair crane options that could pick up a 250 pound power chair. If there were we either couldn’t find them or they weren’t economically feasible. Now, of course, there are options-a-plenty for all kinds of wheelchairs to get into any kind of vehicle as you can see from the surrounding pictures.

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The other issue that factored in was if I botched my transfer, my wheelchair rolled away before I could hook up the crane, or the chair slipped off the crane before it made it into the truck bed then I would have been screwed if I was by myself.

So all those four issues being considered, driving a truck was out and a minivan with a ramp was in. At the time I considered a ramped minivan to be my first accessible vehicle and I would build up to a truck for my second vehicle. But soon after using my power chair and van independently full time when I started college in 1997 I quickly realized how silly my thinking about getting a truck was. Getting in and out of the van was so easy, and unlike a truck I had plenty of room inside the van to move around and haul other people around. Reality set in and my ambitions of being able to drive another truck some day were essentially dashed.

All that changed about six or so years ago though. I was getting a routine repair done on my van and its ramp and while I was sitting in the waiting room I looked up and saw a picture of a Dodge Ram 4x4 truck with a ramp lift wheelchair conversion and it blew my mind. The technology and ingenuity had finally caught up with the times and driving a truck from a wheelchair without doing a transfer or have to crane your chair back into the truck bed was a very doable option. At long last!

With that particular truck lift—like they do at Custom Mobility—a platform shot out from under the truck’s cab and lowered to the ground. Then you would back your wheelchair—manual or power—onto the platform and it would lift you up to the truck cab’s level. Then you would pivot and position yourself behind the wheel.

But with companies like Mobility SVM and Ryno Mobility the latest truck wheelchair conversion technology kicks that up a handful of notches. As you can see in the pictures below, the entire driver side door with a wheelchair platform attached to it slides open  and lowers. Then you back your chair onto the platform and the whole thing raises and slides you into place behind the wheel. Watch this video to see the whole thing in action. Phenomenal!

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I just bought a new wheelchair accessible van two years ago, so I won’t be in the market for a new vehicle again for a number of years from now. Even when that day comes I’ll be getting another van because it’s the most practical vehicle for my lifestyle. But some day when I’m immersed in a steady career, my credit cards, student loans, house payments, etc. are all in check and I can afford a weekend toy you can bet your ass that I’ll getting one of these sweet rides. And a quest that began in the fall of 1996 will finally be actualized. Although instead of a Dodge Dakota I’ll probably get a Dodge Ram. A red one with unique pin striping on the sides, of course. I wonder if Hardware Hank still makes spare keys, because my dad may need to earn their use if he wants to take Big Hank for a joy ride some day.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My Recent Nomination

It's worth mentioning that I was recently nominated for the Judd Jacobson Award, which recognizes a business endeavor by someone with a disability, for my work founding the Minnesota Spinal Cord Injury Association (MNSCIA). I made the top 4 but not the final 3 that go before the selection committee because the true spirit of the award is to recognize an individual's for-profit efforts, whereas I represent an organization that is nonprofit. I'm quite disappointed but I understand the criteria. It was an honor just to get nominated and cool to make it as far as I did. My thanks to my friend, and fellow founder and board member of the MNSCIA, Kurt for writing a great nomination on my behalf. Had I won I would have received a plaque at a special ceremony and $5,000 to go towards the continued development of our nonprofit. It’s money that we desperately need, but we soldier on nonetheless.

What made my nomination even more meaningful and fitting was that I was nominated on July 12, which as readers of this blog know is the anniversary of my paralyzing diving accident. In past years I have reposted my blog post about my first-hand account of my accident, which was just my second post on this blog back in 2009, but this year it slipped my mind on account of a very busy and stressful week of work. So I will belatedly repost Part I and Part II now.

Related to all of this it is also fitting that as of July 12, 2012 you can visit http://mnscia.org/, the website of the MNSCIA. That is the circle of life, folks—minus me holding up a lion cub for effect. Donations can be made on the website, we appreciate any amount if readers are feeling generous and interested in helping out. See the link above to “Like” us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

One Man's Annoying / Aggravating / Interesting Access Picture

A nice day like today reminded me that I never posted this picture I took last summer. It’s my viewpoint of the bright blue sky while I was reclining in my wheelchair relaxing and getting a little sun.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

New EasyStand Blog Post: Trying Hard Not to Ask “Why Me?”

My new EasyStand Blog guest post covers the issue of trying not to ask “why me?” when it has come to my spinal cord injury and other things that have been disability lifestyle related. Please check out “Trying Hard Not to Ask “Why Me?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

One Man's Annoying / Aggravating / Interesting Access Picture

The picture below represents a bit of a nightmare scenario for someone without hand and finger function like myself – a doorknob on the accessible bathroom stall in the men’s room of a Don Pablo’s restaurant. The result is a lot of patience and extra effort to get the door open, me peeing with the toilet stall door open so I don’t get stuck inside hoping that no one walks in on me while I’m doing my business, and my beautiful dinner date waiting at the table for me for an extra long time. Although she just assumed that I ran into some issue. Handles are a much more accessible option, Don Pablo’s.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

One Man's Annoying / Aggravating / Interesting Access Picture

I got this pic from a friend. Without a sidecar this is probably the next best way that wheelchair users like myself can go for a motorcycle ride too. Also good to see that the Little Old Lady From Pasadena is still out there doing her thing…

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

One Man's Annoying / Aggravating / Interesting Access Picture

That’s my van and that’s a shopping cart partially blocking the accessible parking spot. Those striped access zones often become cart corrals for people who are too lazy and half-assed to walk the extra ten feet to put them where they belong. Just last week I witnessed an able-bodied guy in his late 20’s, who was very clearly using a handicapped placard illegally, load up his SUV with stuff from his cart and then leave it where it was. I try not to let stuff like that ruin my day, but at the least it really pisses me off. Just one of the reasons why using handicapped parking can be very annoying sometimes.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This Guy’s Update on Dating With a Disability

Almost a year ago I wrote a blog post on the EasyStand Blog called “This Guy’s Take on Dating With a Disability.” The intent was to pull back the curtain on the challenges that I had faced meeting women and dating over the years as someone with a disability. Given the limited space I was provided (I have a somewhat flexible1000 word limit per post) I tried to delve into all of the issues that were involved with that in a truncated history of having little relationship success. In short, I went on barely any dates and had no girlfriends over a twelve year span. It was a lonely period. Very lonely. Worse, I knew that with all of the good things that I had to offer a relationship I wouldn’t have gone date- and girlfriend-less over a twelve year span if I had been able-bodied. Simple fact. And thus I strongly felt like my disability had a lot to do with that.

Now that post was one of the two most personal things that I had ever written in my life and I really put myself out there with it. As I labored over every detail and edited and re-edited it my biggest concern was that it would come across too woe-is-me-and-my-poor-little-disability. I do not use my disability as crutch for anything in my life  as far as I can keep that in my control and I made a point of specifically mentioning that in the post. Rather, the premise was to offer insight about my own unique personal experiences on the matter. And that’s exactly what it was: My own. Unique. Personal. Experiences.

But despite that emphasis and although that post got the most Facebook “likes” and Tweets of any other post that I’ve written on the EasyStand Blog the overriding reaction was that it was too cynical, negative, that I didn’t try hard enough, that I blamed my disability too much, etc. Quite a bit of people – predominantly women – left comments at the bottom of the post mentioning variations of all those things. Some made valid points but others had outright vitriol, one going so far as to call my “take” (quotations added for condescending emphasis) crap. It was hurtful and unexpected but I responded to every one as politely as I could. If you haven’t read any of the comments I encourage you to do so because it was a good dialogue. And, really, who argues with a lawyer anyway?

All that being said, and in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I am thrilled to report that I met a very special someone shortly after writing that post and she has been in my life for 9 months now. In fact, today is the 9 month anniversary of our first date. A few months ago it dawned on me that I should add a comment to that dating with a disability post to update both new readers and re-readers and commenters that my relationship status had changed, and so much for the better. You can read that on the post here but what I wrote was this:

“I wanted to trackback and update new readers of this blog post as well as past readers who still follow the comments about my relationship status. Shortly after this post went up I did try internet dating via okcupid.com for about a little over a month. I put together what I thought was a pretty compelling profile with a good sales pitch, even though I have a tough time talking myself up. I was upfront about my disability in my profile and added that I was looking for someone willing to see beyond wrapping paper to the gift underneath, if you will. Even though I had almost 140 different women check out my profile during that short period of time, and got emails from okcupid telling me that their profile search traffic numbers and attractiveness rankings showed that women on the site found me “very attractive,” I only got two messages from women kicking my tires, neither of which I was interested in. I myself had a hard time finding women that I was attracted to, or if I was something in their profile turned me off (obnoxious, seemingly uneducated, etc.) and didn’t send any messages myself.

I was just about to work up the courage to message a girl I settled on, just to try it if anything, when I met someone out in the real world — a very pretty girl who cuts my hair at the salon I’ve gone to for years, which is interesting considering what I wrote in the 5th paragraph of my post about preferring to meet someone the old-fashioned way such as someone who cuts my hair that slowly builds into something. She cut my hair 3 out of 4 straight trips to the salon. After the third I decided that I really liked her and wanted to ask her out. I went into the fourth haircut planning to ask her out but chickened out as I was paying. But we became Facebook friends the next day (she sent the invite), started texting a few days later, then I asked her out and we went out to dinner the following Saturday night.

And we have been together ever since, going on over 7 months now. She is fun, smart, beautiful, amazing, and everything I could have asked for in a girlfriend. We are very in love and plan to be in each other’s lives for a long time. I’ve been happier the last 7 months than at any other point in my life because she’s in it. And it just keeps getting better too. In the end it just took a ton of patience and being myself, and finding my dream girl was worth the 12 year wait. And BTW, she still cuts my hair every month, and every now and again I even get a few free haircuts out of the deal!”

Not long ago a good quad friend of mine who was in rehab at Craig Hospital the same time as I was in the fall of 1996 asked me if now that I had a girlfriend if I still felt the same way about the subject of dating with a disability as I did then. I said that it was a tricky question to answer. Had I not met my girlfriend the thoughts that I relayed in that post probably would have continued on, if not compounded incrementally over the last year. But now that I do have a wonderful lady in my life I will admit that post was fairly cynical, but that was my mindset at the time. I also think that I should have tried to be more confident around women and asked more of them out, as well as I should have given a much better crack at internet dating, regardless of the cost, a few years before I finally did.

But on the other hand, if I would have done any of that I might have never met my girlfriend, which is tragic to even ponder. So like I said, after years of being patient and holding out for the right one it all paid off in a big way. After two more months have gone by since I posted that update comment I’m even happier now than I was at that point.

So to that I say happy Valentine’s Day and very happy 9 month anniversary gorgeous, I love you so very much!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

One Man's Annoying / Aggravating / Interesting Access Picture

This is a series of pictures I took a few months ago. One of my doctors has an office in my neighborhood about 6 blocks from my apartment building, and since the weather was decent I decided to roll down the sidewalk to my appointment. Between my place and the doctor’s office building I knew there was road construction that had been ongoing for most of the summer, but didn’t realize how badly it blocked sidewalk access. The most seamless path that I planned on taking revealed a brand new sidewalk that was completely blocked off, presumably to cure the concrete. At the end of the sidewalk on the other side of the street I encountered the signs in the picture below indicating that the crosswalk I needed to use was closed on account of the construction.

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As you can see in the picture below the sidewalk wasn’t just blocked off, it was non-existent. My doctor’s office is in the second building on the right in the background.

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From the vantage point above the sidewalk curls to the right and comes upon a driveway to a parking lot with the vantage point in the picture below. I couldn’t cross the street to use the sidewalk on the other side because both the crosswalk there and the one at the end of the block were also under construction. Moreover, there was a sign that said “No Pedestrian Crossing.” At that point I sat there trying to figure out what to do. Without sidewalks my only other recourse was to go straight down the street about a block and a half, partially through the construction zone.

Right as I was starting to head back to my place I had a “screw it” moment and went for it. Cars were driving at a fairly steady pace but I picked my moment and shot up the street with the flow of traffic as fast as my wheelchair could go and then crossed over to the blocked off from traffic side of the street to the right of the orange cones below. It was a tad hair-raising. But no guts no glory. I was so close and had already come that far. I was a little late to the appointment but at least I made it.

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Luckily, on my return there was barely any traffic so I rolled down the street the two blocks it took to get back on the sidewalk again, getting back on the sidewalk just as a car behind me passed me. I’m sure I got some odd looks and all I was missing was a slow moving vehicle sign on the back of my chair. But this is just a prime and frustrating example of the kinds of access denied/alternative path crap you have to deal with when you use a wheelchair.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Positive Inaccessible Taxi-ing Situation Update

Back in late September I wrote a post on the EasyStand Blog called “An Inaccessible Taxi-ing Situation” that was about inaccessible taxicabs in New York City. Read the post for more details, but to quickly recap New York recently made a decision to change their fleet of cabs to the so-called “Taxi of Tomorrow” but the problem is that the Taxi of Tomorrow (a Nissan NV-200) is not wheelchair accessible, so countless people with disabilities who use wheelchairs cannot hail a cab in New York. Moreover, it will be the taxicab in service for the next ten years which makes it even more difficult for people who use wheelchairs to get around via taxicabs. Clearly, that is a big problem. Currently, only 231 out of 13,000 New York taxicabs are accessible, which is a horrible and unacceptable ratio for one of the biggest cities in the world.

More frustrating is that the decision about the new cabs was made with full knowledge that they were inaccessible and that some cheaper accessible options were available as well. Even worse than that were the very offensive remarks that New York Mayor Bloomberg directed at wheelchair users who have advocated for greater access to the city’s taxicabs. Most notably, he said it would be “too dangerous” for wheelchair users to try to hail a cab, that most taxi drivers would “pretend they didn’t see them,” that wheelchair users “sit too far from the driver to establish a dialogue” and therefore “they would not tip well.” He also suggested that the cabs will weigh too much, use too much gas, and that there is too much “dangerous” space between the backseat and the front of the cabs and that people were going to get hurt because of it. Yikes. Ridiculous.

As you could guess, this inaccessible taxi situation didn’t fly with the disability community and accordingly the United Spinal Association filed a disability discrimination lawsuit in federal court in New York in January 2011. As far as that goes, some good strides have been made recently to make those taxicabs more accessible. First, on December 20, 2011 Governor Cuomo and lawmakers reached a deal to approve a bill that calls for 6,000 new street-hail licenses to be issued to livery cabs in the outer New York City boroughs and upper Manhattan.  But Cuomo threatened to veto the bill unless the legislature addressed the low number of the city’s accessible taxi vehicles. The result is that there will now be 3,200 more accessible taxi vehicles on New York roads. The deal to improve the city’s overall accessibility was applauded by tens of thousands of New York veterans and people with disabilities.

Then about a week later,  in what was hailed as a landmark victory for the disability community, a federal judge ruled that New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to provide access to taxicabs for wheelchair users. The ruling states that until the TLC produces a comprehensive plan to provide meaningful access it can only issue new medallions to wheelchair accessible taxis. In his ruling U.S. District Judge Greg Daniels wrote, “Meaningful access for the disabled to public transportation services is not a utopian goal or political promise, it is a basic civil right.” Amen.

In in this fight that has lasted more than a decade Judge Daniel’s ruling was a very huge victory, but the war to get all of New York’s taxicabs wheelchair accessible rages on.

The article linked  in the paragraph above has a lot of good quotes about disability independence, etc. so be sure to give it a full read.