A look at decades of making life better for people with disabilities
We want the ability to live, love, laugh, and learn, and be in the struggle for our lives just like everyone else,” said Gregg Mozgala, an award-winning actor with cerebral palsy.
In New York City today, there are about one million people with disabilities, including 250,000 children. People with a disability are half as likely to be employed and twice as likely to live in poverty. Less than 17 percent of students with disabilities graduate with a diploma. Many still do not have equal access to the city’s myriad opportunities and services including, jobs, education, transportation, the arts, and civic participation.
Mozgala is the director of inclusion with Queens Theatre, which, through its Theatre for All program, is working to ensure people with disabilities are in the audience, in the repertoire, on stage, and on staff.
Support for this effort is one of the latest steps The New York Community Trust has taken across the decades to promote equity for people with disabilities. The Trust has been, and remains, a key ally in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island in the fight for disability justice.
The fight has taken shape on many fronts, often drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. For example, when efforts lagged to implement the 1973 Rehabilitation Act—which made clear that the country had a responsibility to accommodate people with disabilities—activists staged a sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco that lasted 28 days.
In the late 1970s in New York City, a federal class-action lawsuit called the “Jose P. case”—brought by a legal team that included Advocates for Children and was supported by The Trust—successfully forced the city to expedite providing services to students with special needs.
Just as legislation evolved nationally and locally, the philosophical approach to serving the needs of people with disabilities also changed. Where “treatment” once focused solely on a clinical or medical approach, today the needs of people with disabilities are considered more holistically and through a perspective of creating equity. The Trust has helped lead that evolution, beginning in the 1980s, when it began encouraging grantees to emphasize independence and the development of the full potential of children with disabilities.
There are huge barriers to participation for this community. We’re still fighting very hard to be seen, to be heard, and to make sure that our rights as Americans and citizens are available to us.”
– Gregg Mozgala, Queens Theatre
In 1990, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, but not without controversy. When passage was held up in the House of Representatives, activists staged what became known as “The Capitol Crawl,” where people set aside their wheelchairs and mobility aids and dragged themselves up the stairs of the U.S. Capitol, dramatically demonstrating that they would not stop until the bill was passed.
While the ADA marked a sea change, turning its spirit into ready access continued to be a struggle. To keep the momentum going, The Trust created a coalition of 20 foundations in 1990 that distributed more than $2 million nationwide to help “integrate people with disabilities into American life.”
Long before the ADA, The Trust and its community of compassionate donors were helping people with disabilities—whether it was a 1937 grant of $25 to the American Foundation for the Blind, or a 1952 grant for a then-experimental effort to provide wheelchairs in museums.
One of The Trust’s earliest funds that focuses on people with disabilities was created in 1951 by David Warfield, a successful burlesque and comic Broadway performer in the early 20th century.
When the actor, who had lost his vision, passed away at 84, his will created the David Warfield Funds in The Trust as a lasting legacy to provide ongoing assistance to the blind. Since 1990, that legacy has supported more than $18.7 million in grants.
The Jack Goldring Fund was created at The Trust in 1986 by therapist Judy Goldring and named for her older brother, who was born with a brain injury. Over the years, she worked closely with The Trust’s staff, who served as philanthropic advisors, helping her identify groups that fit her vision for the fund.
“She always had the need to help people, particularly people with disabilities,” her husband, Allan Talbot, said. “I think that grew out of her experience—and that of her family—with her brother.”
The fund has continued to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream, providing support, for example, to a program that connects children and seniors, and for an initiative to develop the city’s first managed-care organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
One of the challenges for many people with disabilities is finding a job. More than 70 percent of blind adults are unemployed, but with a grant from The Trust, Alphapointe is training people with vision loss and employing them in full-time jobs. At a factory in Richmond Hill, Queens, more than 100 people who are blind work to fulfill contracts for the state and federal governments, as well as operate call centers.
Tracie Anderson, who lost her vision as an adult, is a former Alphapointe trainee and now a trainer. People with vision loss looking for a job “get very frustrated,” she said. “I got very frustrated—life was over for me.” But her sister, who also has low vision, told her that Alphapointe hired “people like us.”
As she showed a trainee how to operate a large machine that sewed together blue-green mop heads, Anderson said that when people are called from Alphapointe’s waiting list, “They feel so happy—it’s that independence. They don’t have to be a burden to anyone. They can do what they want to do.”
Nearby, another worker said, “It changed my life because I had nothing to do before. … Now I feel like I do belong to the regular world.”
One ongoing way in which The Trust has helped with employment began in 1964, when a judge overseeing the dissolution of a service organization in Westchester recognized The Trust’s reliability and expertise, and entrusted the group’s remaining funds to us. Ever since, a portion of those funds annually supports Westchester ARC, which champions the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities in schools, workplaces, and the community. Partnerships with businesses have been instrumental in helping young people transition to adulthood. While the national employment rate for people with disabilities is only 19 percent, the rate among graduates of ARC’s program who want to work is 66 percent.
Begun in 1990, the city’s Access-a-Ride system has been criticized for everything from its unreliability to its cost. It requires reservations 24 hours in advance, and riders regularly report that rides are either late or can even arrive early and leave without them. In addition, drivers pool riders without notice, turning a 30-minute trip into a serpentine, two-hour journey.
In 2016, The Trust took action after seeing that advocacy groups for people with disabilities were spending money on cab fare instead of programming because their clients could not depend on Access-a-Ride.
“We were all seeing that the system was hugely broken,” said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the Disability Justice Program of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “There was no coalition working on it.”
With a grant from The Trust, four organizations created AARRG!—both an acronym for “Access-A-Ride Reform Group” and an expression of how users felt about the service.
Lowenkron recalled one pivotal moment for AARRG!—a May 2017 board meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) where Access-A-Ride was on the agenda.
As the activists arrived, they were told that the board was going into executive session, which posed a problem for the riders, who could not change their Access-A-Ride pick-up times to go home. The announcement sparked a spontaneous protest, chronicled by the press, with activists chanting “Shame! Shame!”
“It was a turning moment because people felt empowered,” Lowenkron said, adding it helped lead to the creation of an “on demand” pilot for 1,200 of the 150,000 users. The service was “a life-changing experience,” Lowenkron said. “All the things that were so difficult and could not be done spontaneously were now becoming available to these lucky 1,200.”
The pilot was hailed as a success for its ease and cost-savings. Unfortunately, in late 2019 the MTA said it was going to contain costs by putting limits on the number of rides and the size of subsidies, even as it increased the number of users, a move that has advocates redoubling efforts to expand the popular on-demand service.
“The Trust is proud of our work making New York’s arts and cultural resources more accessible,” said Trust Program Officer Rachel Pardoe, “but the arts can also play a key role in how children and adults learn, grow, and establish themselves.”
The Theatre for All program at Queens Theatre, for example, includes workshops to prepare actors with disabilities to work in professional theater and has reevaluated the performing arts center’s operations from top to bottom.
“There are huge barriers to participation for this community,” Queens Theatre’s Mozgala said. “We’re still fighting very hard to be seen, to be heard, and to make sure that our rights as Americans and citizens are available to us.”
The theater also has presented short plays written by or featuring disabled people. “Unfortunately,” Mozgala said, “you often don’t hear directly from disabled people. You don’t hear their voices or what their experience is or was. … Theater has always been the tip of the spear for marginalized communities to break through to the mainstream.”
With an eye toward increasing accessibility at a range of cultural institutions, The Trust approached the Historic House Trust of New York City to study how its 23 museums could be accessible in all ways to people with disabilities.
A two-year grant is helping members of the Historic House Trust study their accessibility, create plans for improvements, and test new approaches—looking at interpretive methods and other innovative techniques to transform the visitor experience. John Krawchuk, executive director of the Historic House Trust, said: “We need to think creatively to make sure this important history is preserved. … If you are making the Houses accessible to people with disabilities, you really are making them broadly accessible to everyone.”
“My hope is that once we have the results,” he said, “we can create inspirational models that any historic house museum in the country could feel are achievable.”
“It’s especially important to provide supports for children with disabilities,” said The Trust’s Pardoe, “because the benefits of these early efforts grow with them throughout their lifetimes.”
To help Chinese-speaking parents improve how they work with their children with developmental disabilities, The Trust funded a program at Manhattan’s Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in Chinatown. The program is the first to be adapted in the U.S. from a World Health Organization model.
One mother of a child with autism said the program had made her realize that her daughter’s disability was not her fault and she was now able to “accept her more deeply and open my heart.”
“I’ve become more patient with my child,” she said. “I feel more competent. I’m a happier mother.”
“Before, I felt isolated because other parents didn’t understand what was going on with my child,” she said, but now she has a community of parents who help and encourage each other.
“In the beginning,” she said, “I had hope that after a couple of years of intervention, my daughter would be cured. … Now I know my goals for my daughter and I know how to help her.”
Because children with developmental disabilities can have social anxieties that become barriers to learning and employment, The Trust has funded a pilot program at GallopNYC, where students learn leadership skills by working with horses. The group’s executive director, James Wilson, said their “nervous excitement” about meeting horses gives way to comfort with the animals. As they work with the horses, the children gain valuable skills, such as responsibility, teamwork, and empathy.
Mandy Larson, a teacher who brought a cohort of students to GallopNYC, said, “Our staff cannot believe the progress the students have made in their levels of self-control, thoughtful judgement, and ability to regulate emotions when dealing with stressful situations, which are all skills required for a strong leader. … The students overcame their initial fears of interacting with such powerful animals, and now say they feel understood, calm, happy, brave, very proud, and ready for new challenges.”
Because many of the city’s arts education programs are not accessible to all children, The Trust invited several groups in 2018 to talk about ways to increase access. After identifying strategic ways to have an impact, The Trust made a grant to a consortium of three groups to develop resources and plans to train teaching artists to make their lessons more inclusive. Courtney J. Boddie of New Victory Theater explained that the partners, including ArtsConnection and Community-Word Project, were excited to tackle the challenge and make the results available to the field.
“There is something about the arts that reaches kids,” Boddie said. “The arts can create this thing I call ‘bright eyes.’ There is just something that lights up inside a kid when they are creating art, and you can see it in their eyes.”
With support from our Long Island Community Foundation, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill began a morning life-skills program for children with cognitive and developmental disabilities. By having the program at a quiet time in the museum, children’s anxiety was reduced as they toured the galleries. The students then created their own art, which helped them develop motor skills and their ability to express themselves non-verbally.
Wendy Gottlieb, a Parrish teaching artist, said, “By the end of each session, even the most reserved students hold up the work they’ve created, and while they may say nothing, their ear-to-ear smiles speak volumes.”